A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the workings of Kentucky’s equine activity law. This is how a somewhat similar equine-related personal injury claim was handled in England.

Nadine Turnbull was exercising "Gem," a 7-year-old Arabian gelding owned by a friend, when the horse suddenly bolted, ran across a field, and dashed through a gap in a hedge. Gem then tossed Turnbull onto a paved highway and she suffered a serious head injury in the fall. She filed a personal injury lawsuit against Gem’s owner, Rebecca Warrener, seeking damages for chronic migraine headaches and other problems allegedly arising from the incident.

Gem was wearing a bitless bridle at the time on the accident. The horse’s teeth had been floated and Gem’s owner did not want to irritate his sore mouth with a traditional bit. There was testimony that Gem had worn the bitless bridle before without problems, but only while walking and trotting in an enclosed training area. On those occasions, and in general apparently, Gem was a well-behaved horse, responsive to his rider’s commands. Turnbull’s injuries occurred the first time that Gem ventured outside without traditional tack.

England’s version of our state equine liability laws is the "Animals Act 1971," which imposes liability on an animal’s owner for injuries caused by an animal in some—but not all—situations. Horses, thankfully, don’t fall into the "dangerous species" category of the law. This classification is limited to wild animals likely to cause serious injury unless they are properly restrained. Lions and tigers and bears come to mind, and their owners are, and should be, liable for all injuries the animals cause.

Horses, on the other hand, get a break. Their owners are responsible for injuries suffered by someone else only when the harm results from some uncommon and dangerous characteristic of the horse that also is known to the owner. It’s a variation on the "first bite rule," which gives a dog a pass the first time it bites someone, if there is no history of biting or other vicious behavior.

Exceptions Make the Rule

The Animals Act also has liability exceptions for injuries due "wholly to the fault of the person suffering it" and for injuries "suffered by a person who has voluntarily accepted the risk thereof." Similarly, contributory negligence and comparative negligence laws in the United States recognize that an injured person may bear some (or all) responsibility for the injury, and state equine activity laws amount to legislatively mandated assumption of the risk.

The attorney representing Gem’s owner argued that all horses can be unpredictable—it’s hard to disagree with that assessment—and that Turnbull assumed the risk of being injured by taking part in an obviously risky activity. Lord Justice Lewison of the London Court of Appeal agreed:

"An individual who chooses to ride horses for pleasure no doubt derives enjoyment from being able to control a powerful beast," the justice said, according to press reports of the case. "But inherent in that activity is the risk that, on occasions, the horse will not respond to its rider’s instructions, or will respond in a way that the rider did not intend.

"That is one of the risks inherent in riding horses. That is all that happened in the present case."

The decision also recognized that being thrown from a horse does not necessarily mean that the rider gets hurt:

"The evidence was that riders fall off horses every day and do not sustain severe injury. Almost everyone who has ever ridden will have the experience of having fallen off a horse, getting up and remounting."

Thanks to the Animals Act, Turnbull received no compensation for her injuries.

Although the laws in England differ somewhat from state liability statutes in this country, there seems to be at least one common legal denominator on both sides of the Atlantic: lawsuits take forever to resolve. Turnbull’s fall occurred in March 2006, more than six years before an appellate court in London finally handed down a decision.

Our own legal system moves at glacial speed, when it moves at all, and winners and losers alike often wind up frustrated with the process.

Have you spent time in a courtroom, as a plaintiff or defendant? Does the system work to protect both horse owners and injured individuals, or is it hopelessly broken?