A Clearly Articulated Statutory Immunity Applies, Even if it Seems Unfair

Kirkpatrick v. Hidden View Farm, 448 N.J. Super. 165 (App. Div. 2017).  A boy who tagged along with his mother to a horse farm but did not himself take part in any horse-related activity there was barred from suing when he was bitten by a horse as he walked by its stall.  The reason for that, as explained in Judge Sabatino’s opinion for the Appellate Division in this case, was that the Equestrian Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12, provides immunity from suit not only by injured persons who engage in “equine animal activities,” but also by any “participant,” a term that the statute defines as including “anyone accompanying the participant, or any person coming on to the property of the provider of equine animal activities or equestrian area ….”  Also barred from suit are “spectators,” defined as persons “present in an equestrian area for the purpose of observing equine animal activities whether or not an invitee.”

The injury victim, plaintiff Samuel Kirkpatrick, was at the horse farm accompanying his mother, plaintiff Karen Kirkpatrick, and his sister.  Karen Kirkpatrick was there to give a riding lesson to another equestrian and then to clean out the stall of her own horse, who boarded at the farm.  Karen and Samuel’s sister also “performed various horse-related chores for the owner that day, including apparently feeding the horses and providing them with hay.”  Those “efforts seem to have been motivated, at least in part, by commendable altruism in helping out a friend after her surgery,” a reference to the fact that defendant Dorothy Nesti, the owner of the farm, had had foot surgery, and Karen, in exchange for cash or discounts on board or transportation for her own horse, helped around the farm during that period.

The horse that bit Samuel was named Fanny.  Fanny occupied a stall next to that of Karen’s horse, Eclipse.  On the day of the incident, Samuel, who had been to the farm a number of times and had been told by his mother to avoid any horse he did not know, had been playing by a pond at the farm.  He wanted to go home, and walked toward Eclipse’s stall to ask his mother when they would be leaving.  In doing so, he passed Fanny’s stall.  Samuel testified that as he was passing Fanny’s stall, the horse “pinned his ears back” (a sign that Karen had told Samuel meant that a horse was “mad”) and tried to bite his head.  Samuel tried to block the horse with his arm, but Fanny bit his arm.  Samuel testified that he had not been trying to pet or feed Fanny.

There was evidence that Fanny could be ill-tempered.  Nesti testified at deposition that she had seen Fanny act aggressively toward dogs and other horses, but not people.  Nesti described an incident when she had seen Fanny “pick up an eighty-pound dog with its mouth and hurl the dog about two feet.”  Samuel weighed 60-65 pounds and stood 4’3″ or 4’4″.

Defendants obtained summary judgment in the Law Division and, despite the seemingly sympathetic facts, the Appellate Division affirmed.  Judge Sabatino described the backdrop of the equine statute, which involved the Legislature’s desire to protect equine operators from suits arising from “risks that are essentially impractical or impossible for the operator to eliminate” by mandating, with some narrow exceptions, that “the participant voluntarily assumes [the risk] for which there can be no recovery.”

Whether someone like Samuel, who merely accompanied his mother while she used an equine facility, is a “participant” under the statute, was an issue of first impression, Judge Sabatino said.  He found that “[t]he plain meaning of the words of the statute controls,” and that, as a person who had “accompanied” his mother and sister, he was unquestionably a “participant” as that term was defined by the Legislature. The fact that Nesti had testified at her deposition that Samuel was not a “participant” in equine activities did not call for a contrary result.  Her understanding of the statutory term as a layperson was entitled to no weight, since it was the role of the courts, not a lay witness, to decide the question of law of whether Samuel was a “participant.”

None of the exceptions to immunity applied, and the evidence (including from plaintiffs’ expert) that Fanny “was known to be aggressive and prone to biting” did not defeat the statutory immunity.  Accordingly, the summary judgment in favor of defendants was affirmed.