One of the comments to last week’s "Best Of" column asked about interesting topics that didn’t make the Top Five of 2011. With one exception, the columns that generated the most reader comments last year were related to issues (slaughter, legislation) or events (road accidents involving Amish buggies, the shooting of a loose horse by a Sherriff’s deputy) and not actual cases. Rather than give court decisions short shrift—the name of the column is Horses and the Law, after all—a highly subjective selection of the columns that didn’t make the cut follows.

Court Highlights

● Trainer Liability

(February 8, 2011)

Following the death of 17-year-old Kia Eriksson during the cross-country phase of a two-star event in California, her parents sued the United States Equestrian Federation, the United States Eventing Association, the organizers of the event, and Eriksson’s trainer/coach, Kristi Nunnink. The lawsuits against the USEF, the USEA, and the organizers were dismissed, and a trial court eventually dismissed the claim against Nunnink as well.

The Erikssons appealed the dismissal. A California court agreed with them and ordered that the case go to trial. The court determined that a jury should decide the "reasonableness" of Nunnink’s actions in allowing Eriksson to compete on a horse that allegedly was unfit for the task. The court also ruled that a signed waiver of liability did not preclude a lawsuit arising from "aggravated" conduct by the trainer.

Why It Matters

The appellate decision expanded the opportunity for lawsuits against a trainer for injuries suffered by a student rider, despite arguments that competing in equine events is inherently dangerous, that the rider assumed the risk of being injured, and that a valid waiver of liability was signed. These are common defenses to personal injury claims, and the court decision should give every trainer of horses and riders pause.

In the end, it may not matter very much. The appellate decision only allowed the case to proceed to trial. It did not address the merits of the claims and did not guarantee a win when the case finally gets before a jury. Also, California is one of only four states without an equine activity liability statute on the books protecting equine professionals from many personal injury claims. The outcome might have been different if the accident had happened in another jurisdiction.

● Sentimental Journey

(November 22, 2011); Sentimental Journey, Part 2 (November 29, 2011)

These companion columns addressed the dilemma of awarding non-economic damages in a lawsuit for the death of, or injury to, an animal when the animal is harmed by someone’s negligence. Laws in most states do not specifically allow non-economic, or "sentimental," damages in these cases, on the legal theory that animals are property and liability is limited to replacement value. Tucked away at the end of the second column was mention of a Texas case (Medlen v. Strickland) in which an appellate court ruled that a lawsuit seeking non-economic damages for the negligent euthanasia of a pet dog could proceed to trial.

Why It Matters

Even without legal authority, juries occasionally award non-economic damages to the owners of animals harmed by someone’s negligence. These high damage awards typically are reduced to the animal’s replacement value on appeal. Medlen v. Strickland is one of the first, maybe the first, appellate decision recognizing that replacement value may not be sufficient to adequately compensate an animal owner.

The decision is being appealed and is not yet official. It remains to be seen whether Medlen is an aberration or the first wave of a tsunami of animal injury lawsuits seeking non-economic damages. Proponents of non-economic damages argue that the value of the human-animal bond should be acknowledged; opponents claim that allowing sentimental damages will result in increased malpractice insurance costs, higher charges by veterinarians, and reduced availability of affordable veterinary care. This case is important on many levels.

And Now for Something Totally Different

● A Whale Tale

(November 1, 2011)

For sheer goofiness, it’s hard to beat the lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claiming that killer whales at Sea World are being held in slavery in violation of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

"By any definition, these orcas are slaves," Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, was quoted as saying when the complaint was filed, "kidnapped from their homes, kept confined, denied everything that’s natural to them and forced to perform tricks for Sea World’s profit."

Why It Matters

This one has nothing to do with horses, on the surface, at least, but it should make everyone think about the relationships we have with our animals. Do we treat animals with respect, or simply as economic assets to be used up and then discarded? There’s almost no chance the PETA lawsuit will go anywhere, but somewhere down the road there may be a sympathetic judge who thinks these claims, or ones like them, actually make sense. The lesson here is not to dismiss animal rights supporters out of hand. They might win.

Did I miss an important legal case in your area?