If you fall off a horse and hurt yourself, is it always someone else’s fault?

The answer, according to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, is "no."

In November 2007, Linda DeShields and her husband were vacationing at a timeshare they owned in Pennsylvania. During a trail ride, DeShields was injured when she was thrown by Jack-In-The-Box, the horse supplied to her for the ride Bar-U Farm, Inc. Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit, claiming that her injuries were the result of negligence. According to the District Court opinion:

"Specifically, plaintiff (DeShields) asserts that initially Jack-In-The-Box walked very slowly, and she fell behind the others on the ride – her husband and the trail ride leader, Doreen Wehr. Eventually, plaintiff’s horse overtook her husband and Wehr. A short time later, the horse speeded up to a trot or gallop, and plaintiff was thrown off the horse, striking the ground."

Early Dismissal

Before the case made it to trial, Bar-U Farm and the other defendants asked the District Court to dismiss the lawsuit on three grounds: first, that the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Law provided a defense by mandating that a participant in an equine activity assumed the risks of being injured; second, that common law provided a similar assumption of the risk defense, even if the Equine Activity Law did not apply in this case; and, finally, that there was no evidence of negligence in the record, and therefore no way for DeShields to prove her case at trial.

The Pennsylvania law, like the equine activity statutes in many other states, requires the posting of conspicuous signs warning of the inherent risks in equine activities. Because there were questions of fact about whether the required signs actually were posted at the Bar-U stable, and whether they satisfied the statutory requirements, the District Court denied the motion on both grounds raising assumption of the risk.

This is fairly standard stuff. If evidence in the record is subject to different interpretations, the case should not be dismissed prior to trial. A jury should sort things out.

Res Ipsa Loquitor

More interesting was the District Court’s treatment of the defendants’ claim that there was no evidence of negligence in the record to support the lawsuit. Although there was unrefuted testimony that no one inspected the trail where the incident occurred, the court found that the record contained no evidence suggesting that the condition of the trail actually led to DeShields being thrown or to her subsequent injury.

No harm, no foul, in other words.

The District Court also determined that there was no evidence to support other assertions made by DeShields, including claims that the trail was kept in a dangerous condition, that Jack-In-The-Box was not an appropriate mount for the plaintiff, or that there were bees on the trail that might have stung the horse.

DeShields countered with the argument that even if there was no specific evidence in the record, negligence by someone should be inferred by the mere fact that she had been thrown and injured.

"Generally," the Court explained, "plaintiff’s argument can be summarized as follows: because the accident happened, defendants must have been negligent." There’s a legal doctrine for that idea called res ipsa loquitor, a Latin phrase meaning "the thing speaks for itself." This allows such an inference in cases where an injury ordinarily wouldn’t occur without someone being negligent. The doctrine didn’t apply here, the Court concluded, because falling off a horse is an inherent risk of riding that often occurs without anyone being at fault.

In somewhat tortured language, the District Court explained: "It cannot be said that a person would not be thrown from a horse in the absence of someone’s negligence. It is an inherent danger of riding a horse that such an incident may occur no matter how many precautions are taken." With no evidence of negligence, either real of inferred, the lawsuit was dismissed. On appeal to the Third Circuit, the dismissal was affirmed.

Did the courts get it right? Is someone’s negligence at the root of every riding accident?