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Sometimes it’s a Bad Idea to Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

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Samuel Kirkpatrick, Jr. et al. v. Hidden View Farm and Dorothy Nesti involved an unfortunate situation where a young boy sustained serious injuries after being bitten by a horse. Samuel, who was 9 years old at the time of the incident, had accompanied his mother to a horse farm at which she was volunteering her time. While on the premises, Samuel was bitten badly on his arm by a horse at the farm, and as a result of the bite had to undergo several plastic surgeries and sustained residual scarring. Samuel’s mother sued the horse’s owner and the horse farm, alleging that the horse had a proclivity for aggressive behavior and that they should have taken precautions that would have prevented the horse from biting Samuel. The trial court granted summary judgment for all defendants, finding that the horse farm was protected from liability by the immunity afforded them under the Equestrian Activities Liability Act (“Equine Act”). Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision as to the horse farm, and the critical issue addressed by the Appellate Division was whether Samuel was a participant as defined by the Equine Act.

The Equine Act limits how and when a person injured by equine animals may sue in tort, and mandates that participants and spectators bear the risk for any injury that occurs on the property, subject to some exceptions. In the present case, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiffs were on the premises of the horse farm to engage in activities within the scope of the statute. The panel further concluded that while Samuel might not have been a participant in the layperson’s meaning of the term, the statutory definition of “participant” clearly included those who accompany people who engage in equine-related activities to the premises. As such, since Samuel clearly accompanied his mother to the farm, he fell within the broad scope of the statute’s purview. And since horses have at times an inherent proclivity to bite, the incident did not fall under one of the enumerated statutory exceptions to this immunity. The Appellate Division affirmed summary judgment for the defendant farm.

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