A trip to the restroom shouldn’t turn into a contact sport, but sometimes bad things happen.

In March 2010, Thomas Duban and his wife, Martha, attended a horse sale at the Waverly Sale Barn in Waverly, Iowa. Martha said that she went along only to keep her husband company, had no intention of buying anything, and didn’t even have a bid card. What happened next, according to court documents, was this:

"At some point during the sale, Martha needed to use the restroom. The restrooms are located at the south end of the sale barn. In order to get to the restrooms from her seat at the north end of the arena, Martha had to walk through an egress in the northeast corner of the arena, exit the arena, and walk to the south end of the sale barn where the restrooms were located. When she was returning to her seat, two large Percheron draft horses were being led from the arena through the northeast egress to stalls outside the arena. While she was in the northeast egress area, the two horses shied, knocked Martha to the ground, and stepped on her, causing serious injuries."

The Dubans sued the owner of the sales barn, claiming negligence and loss of companionship.

Spectator or Participant?

Iowa, like 45 other states, has an equine activity law that insulates sponsors of horse events (such as horse sales) from liability for personal injuries in many—but not all—situations. These laws often make a distinction between a person who is a participant in the horse activity and a person who is a spectator, the idea being that someone actually taking part in the event is more likely to be aware of the inherent risks of being injured when horses are involved.

The relevant law in this situation, Iowa Code Section 673.2(4), applies to both participants and spectators—with a few exceptions. The exception that is potentially applicable here covers situations in which the equine activity "occurs in a place designated or intended by an animal activity sponsor as a place for persons who are not participants to be present." Translated from the legalese, the exception to the statute applies to injuries suffered in a location where a spectator reasonably could expect to be safe.

Both sides agreed that the Waverly Sales Co. was an equine activity "sponsor" and that the sale was an event covered by the statute. The question involved Martha’s status when she was injured. If she was a "participant" in the sale, the statute would provide an effective defense to the personal injury lawsuit. If, on the other hand, Martha was only a "spectator," the exception would kick in and the lawsuit could proceed.

Attorneys for the Waverly Sales Co. tried to shortcut the proceedings with a motion for summary judgment. The motion claimed that Martha was a participant in the horse sale and that there was no need for a trial because the Iowa equine activity law was an ironclad defense. The trial judge disagreed:

"The Court is unpersuaded . . .that Martha was a participant because she was ‘watching as the horses were shown or displayed’ with her husband ‘in the inspecting of horses, or items for purchase, whether she planned to planned to give advice or simply keep him company at the sale.’ "

The trial judge found two factual questions that could not be resolved short of a trial:

●Was Martha actually a participant, or was she a spectator?

●Was she injured in a place where the sales company anticipated spectators would be?

The effect of the court’s decision denying the motion for summary judgment was to allow the case to proceed to trial, which is scheduled for March 25, 2013. It’s important to keep in mind that the preliminary ruling was not a decision on the merits of the Dubans’ lawsuit. It simply means that they will be allowed to present their case to a jury.

One lesson from the court’s ruling is that you shouldn’t stop reading your state’s equine activity liability statute at the "get out of jail free" provision. Understanding the exceptions to the law can be as important as understanding the basic provisions.