Michigan Appeals Court Holds Special Relationship Existed Between Defendant Horseback Riding Camp and Injured Camper

In July 2010, plaintiff Samantha Johnson attended horseback riding camp sponsored by defendant and held on a ranch called Outback. Samantha was an inexperienced horseback rider and was injured on a trail ride. Plaintiff brought suit, alleging that defendant was liable for Samantha’s injury.

Samantha testified that to the trail ride on which she was injured, Samantha and her campers were told to pick helmets. Samantha’s helmet was too large and she told the counselors. One counselor told her to find the best fit that she could and the other tightened her chin strap, still leaving it too loose.

Samantha testified that during a break from the trail ride, her horse began to walk around on its own, frightening her. Samantha told a counselor, who dismounted her horse and stood with Samantha until they continued the trail ride. Around that time, Samantha’s horse became “spooked” and ran away from the group. Samantha testified that her helmet came loose and slid to the back of her head while the horse was running. Samantha was injured when she hit a tree branch and fell.

At summary disposition, defendant argued it was immune from liability under the Equine Activity Liability Act and that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding the the breach of a duty owed. Plaintiffs argued in response that defendant was liable for the actions of Outback pursuant to agency theory, and sought to amend their complaint accordingly. The trial court considered plaintiffs’ agency argument, but ultimately granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition, therefore denying plaintiffs’ motion to amend. Plaintiffs appealed.

Section 3 of the EALA provides that “an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or another person is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant or property damage resulting from an inherent risk of equine activity” except as provided in section five. An “equine activity sponsor” is defined as “an individual, group, club, partnership, or corporation, whether or not operating for profit, that sponsors, organizes, or provides the facilities for an equine activity[.]” An “equine activity” includes, inter alia, “[r]iding, inspecting, or evaluating an equine belonging to another . . . .”

Defendant argued that it was not liable under section 3 of the EALA based on its status as an “equine activity sponsor,” and that any liability fell on Outback because it provided the tack, the equipment, and the horses. The trial court found that while EALA did not preclude finding liability against defendant, plaintiffs had not established any of the exceptions in section 5 of the statute applied to their case.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the record reflected an absence of evidence of conduct by defendant to provide equipment or tack or to provide an equine. To the contrary, the evidence suggested that such conduct was solely that of Outback. Further, Samantha testified that she thought the person who provided her with a horse was from Outback and she did not know whether the individuals who fitted her and adjusted her helmet were from Outback or defendant. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition regarding the provision of the equine, tack, and equipment.

Plaintiffs next argued that defendant was liable for Samantha’s injuries under EALA due to its negligent selection of Outback as the site for its camp. Specifically, they argued that EALA lacked certified instructors and liability insurance. The trial court found that no standard of care was created or breached. The appeals court disagreed.

Under Michigan precedent, a plaintiff must establish four elements to bring a negligence claim: “(1) duty, (2) breach of duty, (3) causation, and (4) damages.” While normally a person does not have an affirmative legal duty to aid or protect another person, the Michigan court of appeals has held that a duty to aid or protect another may be imposed where a “special relationship” exists between parties.

In Terrell v LBJ Electronics, 470 NW2d 98 (1991), the minor plaintiff argued that a special relationship arose between himself and the defendant when the defendant volunteered to drive him home from a Boy Scout meeting. The Michigan court of appeals that it was reasonable to impose a duty of care on a person who volunteered to drive a child to his home, as there was “little utility in a rule which would permit a person to volunteer to drive a child to his home without imposing on that person a duty to do it with due care.” Similarly, the appeals court reasoned, a special relationship arose between defendant and Samantha when she registered for the camp and agreed, along with her mother, to place herself under the control of defendant for the duration of the camp.

The court concluded that under the facts pleaded Samantha’s case, plaintiffs established that defendant owed Samantha a duty of care, and it should be left to a jury to decide whether defendant’s actions and omissions breached that duty of care.

The court also faulted the trial court for failing to address proximate cause. On remand, it held, the trial court should assess proximate cause and ensure that evidence related to proximate cause does not effect an “end-run” around the grant of immunity provided by the EALA, but instead demonstrates that “the connection between the wrongful conduct and the injury is of such a nature that it is socially and economically desirable to hold the wrongdoer liable.”

Finally, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that plaintiffs presented no evidence that Samantha’s injury was caused by her mother’s perception that Outback was an agent of defendant. Specifically, the appeals court agreed with the trial court’s finding that while plaintiffs had established a genuine issue of material fact as to the requirements of ostensible agency, they had not presented any evidence that Samantha’s injuries resulted from an ostensible agency relationship between Outback and defendant. Plaintiffs presented no evidence to show, for example, that Samantha’s mother would not have sent her on the trip had she known that defendant had hired a third party to provide equine instruction. Plaintiffs thus did not present a genuine issue of material fact with regard to an ostensible agency, because they failed to present any evidence that Samantha was harmed “as a result of relying on the perceived fact” that Outback was an agent of defendant.

Thus, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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