A release from liability that a horseback riding farm requires all of its customers to sign violates public policy and is not enforceable, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled.
The high court, citing a similar case involving a snowtubing liability waiver, ruled that a recreational liability waiver must be judged in the “totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations,” including whether the recreational activity is one people expect to be safe, whether the operator is in the best position to ensure safety, and whether the customer has any choice in the waiver.
Williams and Mona Raymond, owners of Wind Swept Farm LLC, had all of their customers sign the waiver. The plaintiff, Jessica Reardon, signed the release prior to her horseback riding lesson with the defendants and even identified herself on the release as an “[e]xperienced [r]ider” and as someone who had “[r]idden [horses] frequently” several years earlier.
During the course of her lesson, the horse provided by the defendants became excited, bucked back and forth suddenly and without warning, and threw the plaintiff to the ground, causing her serious injuries.
The plaintiff brought an action in August, 2003, alleging that she had been injured due to the defendants’ negligence. Among other things, she maintained that the defendants knew of the horse’s propensity to buck yet failed to warn [the plaintiff] and they failed properly to hire and train their riding instructor.
In their defense, the Raymonds contended that the plaintiff had assumed the risk and legal responsibility for any injury and her claims were barred due to the fact that she signed the waiver/release. The trial court agreed, ruling that the waiver was enforceable and granting summary judgment for the Raymonds.
On appeal, plaintiff Reardon claimed that the release should be void as a matter of public policy in light of the court’s previous decision in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. 314. This time, the Supreme Court agreed with her.
In Hanks, a case about a release involving snowtubing, the court concluded that the enforcement of an exculpatory document might violate public policy if certain conditions are met. The court concluded that “[t]he ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.”
In the Hanks snowtubing decision, the court placed particular emphasis on: the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and the fact that the release was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis.
The Supreme Court found the situation in the horseback riding case similar to that in Hanks. The Raymonds provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment, and their facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels.
The court said that there is a “reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.”
Additionally, as in Hanks, the court found that the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition.” Although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position than the average rider to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. It was the defendants, not their customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.”
The high court was also bothered by the fact that the release was mandatory. There was no opportunity for the plaintiff to negotiate the terms. If she didn’t like the terms of the release, her only option was to not participate in the activity.
In addition, the court said the waiver was an attempt to extend the plaintiff’s assumption of risk beyond what the state Legislature set forth. Current statute says that an operator of a horseback riding facility can be liable for injuries caused by its own negligence.
The court acknowledged that there are certain risks that are inherent to horseback riding as a recreational activity, one of which may be that horses move unexpectedly. However this “does not change the fact that an operator’s negligence may contribute greatly to that risk.” For example, the defendants’ may have negligently paired the plaintiff with an inappropriate horse given the length of time since she last had ridden or negligently paired the plaintiff with an instructor who had not properly been trained on how to handle the horse in question. The court said both of these scenarios “present factual questions that, at trial, may reveal that the defendants’ negligence, and not an inherent risk of the activity, was to blame for the plaintiff’s injuries.”
Accordingly, the court said it was unable to conclude that horseback riding is so different from snowtubing that the release should be enforced as a matter of law.
The case, Reardon v. Wind Swept farm LLC, was handed down Sept. 29, 2006.
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