Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Agricultural Law in the Spotlight: Federal Court Rules against Application of Pennsylvania Equine Activity Immunity Act

Written by M. Sean High—Staff Attorney

On September 26, 2016, the United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania denied a motion for summary judgement seeking dismissal of an injury claim involving a Pennsylvania equine facility.  (Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 WL 5402745).  The claim alleged that the plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, suffered an injury at Happy Trails and Riding Center due to defective equipment supplied by the equine facility.  The motion, filed by the defendant owner of the equine facility, sought dismissal of the case due to immunity protection resulting from: (1) a signed waiver and (2) the Pennsylvania Equine Activity Immunity Act (EAIA).

On May 31, 2014, Melendez visited defendant’s equine facility for the purpose of engaging in horseback riding.  Prior to taking part in any equine activity, Melendez signed an agreement assuming the risk of all activities relating to horseback riding.  Additionally, signs were prominently posted at defendant’s facility stating: “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.”

While at the defendant's equine facility, Melendez engaged in horseback riding with a horse and saddle supplied by the defendant.  During this time, a stirrup on the saddle Melendez was using broke and Melendez fell to the ground.  According to Melendez, the fall resulted in his suffering fractured ribs and pneumothorax.  Subsequently, Melendez brought suit alleging that the defendant had negligently furnished defective equipment which directly resulted in his injury.

In response, the equine facility owner sought to dispose of the claim, through summary judgement, on two separate grounds.  First, the defendant argued that the waiver Melendez signed covered broken equipment and provided immunity under the facts presented.  Second, the defendant claimed that as a qualifying equine facility, it was entitled to liability protection under EAIA.

Regarding the signed waiver, the court agreed that the document contained language protecting the defendant from negligence.  Melendez, however, contended that the defendant’s conduct “amount[ed] to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct.”

The court agreed that the waiver only provided immunity for negligence and not for recklessness.  The court stated that the defendant’s “bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to the material fact.” As a result, the court ruled that the signed waiver did not provide “a sufficient basis for summary judgement.”   

Next, the court addressed the application of EAIA. 

Under EAIA, a qualifying equine facility that demonstrates proper signage, and that a plaintiff knowingly assumed the risk of the equine activities, is granted immunity from liability. (4 P.S. §§ 601-606).  Melendez acknowledged that signage at defendant’s equine facility was proper.  Nevertheless, Melendez argued that EAIA did not apply because he was not aware that the stirrup could possibly be defective, and thus could not have knowingly assumed the risk. 

The court agreed, maintaining that under EAIA a "Defendant must show that [a] Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge." The court stated that this was not “a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred.” The court ruled that because the defendant did not show that Melendez decided to use the equipment with knowledge that the stirrup could possibly fail, the defendant was not entitled to EAIA protection.

The court’s ruling raises the issue of how Pennsylvania equine facilities are to establish the assumption of risk for possible equipment failure under EAIA.  Significantly, because the decision was issued by a federal court, Pennsylvania courts are not bound by the holding.  Nevertheless, equine facility owners should be aware that Pennsylvania courts may find the decision persuasive and choose to rule in similar fashion.  

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