Dangerous Horses May Be Treated Differently than Dangerous Dogs; Burdick v. Romano

Apparently, lawsuits involving dangerous horses are governed by a different set of rules than claims involving other dangerous animals if the riders are engaged in a sporting activity at the time of the injury.

Romano owned a horse farm, where she boarded and trained horses owned by others. One of Romano’s horses at the farm, Sheza, was an aggressive horse known for kicking other horses. Burdick owned a horse (Chip) that was boarded and trained at Romano’s farm, and he came there almost every day to train. Chip was a gelded, laid back, and lazy horse. Burdick knew of Sheza’s aggressiveness.

One day, Burdick went to the farm to ride horses with Romano in a pasture. Romano warned Burdick to stay away from Sheza, because she would back up and kick other horses.

Three days later, Burdick returned to ride Chip in the farm’s arena. She and Romano began to ride their horses around poles in the arena. At some point, Romano dismounted Sheza and walked away. Burdick was behind Sheza on Chip when Romano dismounted. Sheza backed up directly towards Burdick and Chip and kicked Burdick, seriously injuring her.

Burdick sued Romano, and Romano moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion. Burdick later moved to exclude evidence that she and Romano were sports participants at a sporting event at the time of the injury. That motion was also denied.

At trial, the parties submitted competing jury instructions, disagreeing on whether Burdick needed to prove that Romano acted negligently or recklessly. The trial court did not read Burdick’s negligence instruction. The jury returned a defense verdict, and Burdick appealed.

The first issue addressed on appeal was the standard of proof that Burdick needed to meet. Burdick argued that her case was like a dog bite case, and that the test in those cases is whether the dog owner was negligent. But Romano compared the case to those involving sporting activities, which require proof of recklessness.

The Court’s discussion showed that it was not creating a bright-line rule in these kinds of cases. Instead, it focused on whether the facts of the case would support a conclusion that Burdick and Romano were engaged in a sporting activity at the time of the injury, and it found that they were.

Burdick and Romano were not riding their horses in a pasture or other country terrain but within an arena specifically and exclusively designed for horse training. Both Burdick and Romano described their activities in the arena as tricks and training related to the sport of horse-back riding, where, for instance, Burdick testified that she was going through her training routine in the arena.

These and other facts showed that this was “not a simple ‘dog bite’ case but instead is a sporting activity case”, comparable to non-competitive golf, practicing karate kicks, and riding a mountain bike on a trail. Therefore, Burdick needed to prove recklessness, and the trial court did not err when it rejected Burdick’s proposed instruction. The verdict was affirmed.

Lessons:
1. An injury caused by a dangerous animal is subject to a recklessness standard of proof if the injury occurred during a sporting activity.
2. Someone who is horse riding in a horse arena while practicing horse-riding tricks is engaging in a sporting activity.

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