By Paul E. Pfeifer Contributing Columnist
March 2, 2014
From 2000 to 2008, Roshel Smith worked at her father’s business, CJS Standardbred Stables, helping to care for and manage the horses. In 2007, an incident occurred at CJS that resulted in a lawsuit that eventually came before us — the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Donald Landfair, a licensed livestock dealer for 40 years, boarded two of his horses — Green Acres Patty and Green Acres Annie — at CJS. On March 28, Landfair loaded his horses into a trailer for off-site blacksmithing. He took them to the blacksmith and reloaded them for return by himself, without incident.
Meanwhile, Roshel had stopped by CJS to visit her father. As she was standing by the barn door watching her father exercise another horse, Landfair unloaded Patty from the trailer. As he returned to unload Annie, an Amish wagon with two teams of horses passed by, spooking Annie.
Roshel heard a commotion, glanced over and saw that Annie had pushed Landfair out of the trailer, onto the ground. Annie jumped out of the trailer, and was starting to step on Landfair, who still had hold of the line. Roshel ran to assist. She doesn’t remember much after that — she was kicked in the head and received facial and head injuries.
Thereafter, Roshel filed a personal-injury complaint alleging that Landfair had been negligent in attempting to handle an untrained and unbroken horse known to be skittish, and in failing to seek assistance in unloading the horse from its trailer.
In response, Landfair filed a motion claiming that he was immune from liability because of Ohio’s equine immunity law. What is the equine immunity law?
In the 1990s, the Ohio legislature passed a law which states that an equine activity sponsor, equine activity participant, veterinarian, farrier, or other person is not liable for damages for harm that “an equine activity participant allegedly sustains during an equine activity and that results from an inherent risk of equine activity.”
For the purposes of this law, “equine” means horses, ponies, mules, hinnies, donkeys, zebras, zebra hybrids, and alpacas.
“Equine activity” is broadly defined in the law. It includes an equine show, fair, competition, performance, or parade that involves an equine and an equine discipline, including, but not limited to, dressage, grand prix jumping, rodeo, barrel racing, polo, and recreational riding. Almost every activity associated with a horse is an “equine activity,” including “the trailering, loading, unloading, or transporting of an equine.”
The definition of “equine activity participant” is similarly broad. It includes riding, training, and driving an equine. The last definition on the list of “equine activity participant” is “being a spectator at an equine activity.”
When Roshel filed her claim, the court determined that the law barred her claim because she was a spectator — in that she was present at Annie’s unloading and “noticed” that event. Thus, according to the trial court, Roshel was an “equine activity participant” when she was injured and judgment was granted in favor of Landfair.
The court of appeals reversed that judgment, rejecting the trial court’s application of the immunity law. The court of appeals concluded that Roshel was not an equine-activity participant because she was not a spectator.
Although “spectator” isn’t defined in the law, the court of appeals said that the word shouldn’t be interpreted so that anyone who glances at a horse and is thereafter injured by it becomes a spectator of an equine activity and thereby an equine-activity participant.
The court of appeals decided that to be a spectator, one must purposely watch the activity in question and concluded that Roshel wasn’t a “spectator,” because she wasn’t “watching” the equine activity.
By a six-to-one vote, our court reversed the court of appeals. According to the majority, Roshel was injured due to an “inherent risk of equine activity,” which includes the propensity of horses to behave in ways that may result in injury. Although she wasn’t at the stable that day to work, she voluntarily placed herself in a location where equine activities were taking place, and was injured due to the inherent risk of that activity.
The majority said that Roshel’s proximity to Landfair’s horse was not due to chance. She was at the stable to see her father, and was standing near the place where an “equine activity” was occurring.
According to the majority, intent to watch is not necessary to be a spectator, but simply being in the vicinity of equine activities is not enough to render someone a spectator. Rather, the person must be there voluntarily, aware that equine activities are occurring.
I cast the dissenting vote because Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution states: “All courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done him in his land, goods, person, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, and shall have justice administered without denial or delay.” Our court has stated that this section of the Ohio Constitution “protects the right to seek redress in Ohio’s courts when one is injured by another.”
The majority opinion states that Roshel “was injured due to an ‘inherent risk of equine activity …’” Roshel wasn’t injured because of an inherent risk; she was injured because she went out of her way to help someone she wasn’t obligated to help and was injured in the process. Next time, she would be well served to sit back and watch a person get trampled.
The upshot of this case is to encourage people encountering a dangerous situation involving a horse to watch, rather than attempt to help. Of course, even in that situation, if the horse walked over to the person watching and kicked her, there would be no recovery because that person would be a spectator.
The broad scope of the equine immunity law as enacted by the Ohio legislature and as interpreted by our court effectively renders Article I, Section 16 toothless with respect to equine-related injuries. I would have adopted the sound reasoning of the court of appeals, but the majority saw it differently.
Editor’s note: The case referred to is Smith v. Landfair, 135 Ohio St.3d 89, 2012-Ohio-5692. Case No. 2011-1708. Decided Dec. 6, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.
Paul E. Pfeifer is a justice with The Supreme Court of Ohio.