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James v. Young: Are landowners liable for horse riding injury to child?

What can landowners do to protect themselves?

A recent case out of the Waco Court of Appeals, James v. Young, is the real-life version of many landowners’ nightmare. When a six-year-old child fell off of a horse the landowners allowed him to ride, his parents filed suit. Did the Farm Animal Liability Act apply to shield the landowners from liability?

Background

The James family and the Young family were friends.  One weekend, the two families were spending time at the Young ranch.  The mothers and two of the children rode horses while several of the men worked cattle.  When the mothers and children returned, six-year-old Bradey James said he wanted to ride the horse as well.  Bradey and another child, Daniel, got on two of the horses and rode down a gravel road.  They turned around and headed back towards other horses up the road and the horses they were riding began running.  Bradey hit his head on the saddle horn, fell off of the horse he was riding, and was injured.

The James family filed suit against Justin and Paul Young for negligent handling of animals claiming that they failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent the horse from injuring Bradey and that they allowed the child, who was only six-years-old, to ride their horse and failed to determine the ability to safely manage the horse before allowing Bradey to ride.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Justin and Paul Young and dismissed the case.  The court found no genuine issue of material fact in this case to justify going to trial.  The James family appealed.

Texas Farm Animal Liablity Act

This case centers on the application of the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act.  Under that statute, a person is not liable for injuries to participants in a farm animal activity if they were the result of dangers or conditions that are an inherent risk of  a farm animal activity.  For example, if a horse spooks and bucks someone off, that would likely be held an inherent risk of riding a horse and the owner would not be liable.  [For a more detailed explanation of the Farm Animal Liability Act, click here and here.]

There are, however, a list of exceptions to the limited liability found pursuant to the Act.  The one at issue in this case is found in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Section 87.004(2), which says that a person is liable for damages arising from a farm animal activity if “the person provided the farm animal  and the person did not make a reasonable and prudent effort to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the farm animal activity and determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the farm animal, taking in to account the participant’s representations of ability.”

The Youngs claim that the Farm Animal Liability Act relieves them from liability.  The James family concedes that the Act applies, but claims that they at least raised a genuine issue of material fact over whether the exception was applicable and their claims may go forward.

Waco Court of Appeals Opinion

The Court sided with the Youngs.  [Read full opinion here.]

Prior cases have held that this exception does not require “a formal, searching inquiry” into a person’s ability to ride a horse.  Instead, it requires only a reasonable, prudent effort to determine the person’s ability to ride.  The burden of proving failure to inquire rests with the injured party.

Here, the court found that the James family introduced no evidence that the Youngs failed to make appropriate efforts to determine Bradey’s riding ability, or that any such failure was the cause of the accident.  The court noted that Bradey’s parents consented to him riding the horse and his mother admitted she was knowledgeable of Bradey’s riding abilities and believed he was good enough to ride alone, which he had done before.

Thus, the James family failed to present evidence that a factual dispute existed over whether the exception applied, and the Farm Animal Liability Act shielded the Youngs from liability.  The decision of the trial court was affirmed.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion

Chief Justice Gray issued a Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in this case.  [Read full opinion here.]

Justice Gray agreed that the Texas Farm Animal Liability Act applied to this case.  In fact, he said “this is the type of suit for which [the Act] was enacted.”

Where he disagreed, however, is whether the James family offered sufficient evidence that the exception applied to grant summary judgment in this case.  He believes they did.

Justice Gray notes that any statute, such as this, with phrases like “reasonable and prudent effort” or “safely manage” make summary judgment very difficult to obtain, because they lend themselves to factual issues.  He believes that the James family did put forth factual evidence that could possibly convince jurors that the Youngs failed to make an adequate injury such as Justin not asking Bradey’s parents about his skill or experience, Justin never seeing Bradey ride a horse alone,  Bradey’s parents relying on Justin saying Bradey would be fine, the fact that Justin knew that age and size were important factors in riding safely, that Justin knew it could be dangerous of a six year old to ride without a halter, and that Justin knew the tendency of a horse to run back towards another horse.  This evidence was sufficient to allow jurors to determine Paul and Justin failed to inquire into the child’s ability, and the jury should be the one to make the determination of whether the exception applied or not, rather than the court on summary judgment.

Take Aways

Landowners are often, and rightfully, concerned about their potential liability if someone is injured riding horses on their property.  What can landowners do to protect themselves? Landowners should:

  • Ensure they have an adequate liability insurance policy that would cover this type of situation on their land.  Having insurance is likely the best protection landowners have to protect their operation from financial disaster in this type of situation.  Landowners should visit with their insurance agent to ensure they have sufficient coverage, both with regard to the scope of activities covered an the dollar amount obtained.
  • Be aware of limited liability statutes such as the Farm Animal Liability Act, Recreational Use Statute, and the Texas Agritourism Act and take the steps necessary to ensure compliance with those statutes.  [Click here to learn more.]
  • When providing horses to others to ride, always take care to determine the ability of the participant and to ensure any tack provided is in sufficient condition.  These are exceptions under the Farm Animal Liability Act that may be relied upon by plaintiffs to circumvent the limited liability offered by the Act.
  • Take care to exercise caution and common sense anytime allowing other persons to be on their property, particularly when riding horses is involved.  We all know that accidents can happen even when the utmost care is used, but trying one’s best to ensure safety can oftentimes avoid disaster.
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