MSC: You can, at least, try to blame the horse

In our May 3, 2010 edition, Carol Lundberg detailed a case before the Michigan Supreme Court involving equine liability. (See “A horse with no blame”). In the case, Trina Beattie was asking the court to grant leave to appeal the Court of Appeals decision dismissing her negligence case against the owner of a horse that had bit her.

At issue was the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), which immunizes a horse owner from liability unless the owner was negligent.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision and remanded the case back to the trial court:

A plaintiff is not required to plead a claim in avoidance of the limitations on liability provided in the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL 691.1661 et seq. Cf. Mack v Detroit, 467 Mich 186, 198 (2002). In addition, although EALA abolished strict liability for horse owners, Amburgey v Sauder, 238 Mich App 228, 245 (1999), it did not abolish negligence actions against horse owners. Indeed, EALA expressly states that “[s]ection 3 does not prevent or limit the liability . . . if the . . . person . . . [c]ommits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury.” MCL 691.1665. …

Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. wrote a partial dissent arguing that the COA properly dismissed Beattie’s claim under the EALA:

MCL 691.1663 limits the liability of “an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or another person” (a “horse owner”) when the alleged injury or damage “result[s] from an inherent risk of an equine activity.” …

I agree with the Court of Appeals that MCL 691.1665(d) cannot be construed as broadly allowing general negligence claims without completely eviscerating the entire concept of limited liability under the EALA. MCL 691.1665 must be read in conjunction with MCL 691.1663 to give effect to the act as a whole.4 Giving effect to both provisions, the Court of Appeals correctly interpreted the exception of MCL 691.1665(d) as involving “human error” “not within the gamut of ‘inherent[ly] risk[y] . . . equine activity.’”

MCL 691.1665 provides such “a general term follow[ing] a series of specific terms.” Subsections (a) – (c) provide specific exceptions in specific situations: where the horse owner has provided faulty tack, failed to match the rider’s ability to the horse’s personality, or failed to warn of a known latent dangerous condition on the land. Each of
these exceptions obviously involves an equine activity and a danger that could potentially arise in the course of that activity. However, each also involves an affirmative act or omission on the part of the horse owner, above and beyond the “inherent” or essential risks of an equine activity, which makes the equine activity even more dangerous. Therefore, we must interpret the more general negligence exception of subsection (d) “to include only things of the same kind, class, character, or nature” as the more specific, preceding subsections. Accordingly, a negligence claim pursuant to subsection (d) must also involve a negligent act or omission beyond the “inherent” risk of the equine activity, making the activity even more dangerous.

Moreover, the majority order, as well as Justice MARKMAN’s concurring statement, base their interpretation of the negligence exception to the EALA on an overly narrow and faulty linchpin: that the exception was intended simply to eliminate strict liability for horse owners. However, this interpretation fails to consider that, if the Legislature’s goal were merely to eliminate strict liability, it could have accomplished that goal in a much simpler and more direct fashion. Instead, the Legislature drafted a complex limitation on liability for injuries arising from an inherent risk of an equine activity and accompanied that limitation with numerous specific exceptions. …

Here, plaintiff was injured while assisting defendant to saddle a horse. Saddling a horse in preparation of riding is clearly an equine activity and a horse’s unexpected and negative reaction to being saddled is clearly an inherent risk of such activity. Further, both plaintiff and defendant were aware of the particular horse’s personality and of plaintiff’s level of experience with horses.

Young concurred with the majority’s holding that the trial court improperly shifted the burden of proof onto the plaintiff to “state her claim in avoidance of the EALA limitation on liability.” He was joined in his concurrence/dissent by Justices Elizabeth A. Weaver and Maura D. Corrigan.

Justice Stephen J. Markman concurred in the order to rebut the Young’s dissent:

Both the Court of Appeals and the dissent conclude that the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL 691.1661 et seq., only permits a negligence claim when it involves something other than inherently risky equine activity. I respectfully disagree. …

It is uncontested that plaintiff was a “participant” “engage[d] in an equine activity” when she was injured. The issue is whether plaintiff’s claim fits within the “negligent act or omission that is a proximate cause of the injury” exception of EALA. The Court of Appeals correctly held that EALA does not provide blanket immunity to a horse owner. However, I believe that it read the immunity that EALA does provide too broadly. …

Here, defendant admitted that he knew that the horse was “green broke,” and thus that only the most experienced riders should handle the horse. That is, defendant had knowledge of the horse’s abnormally dangerous propensities. Indeed, that is why, according to his own testimony, he refused to let plaintiff ride the horse. Therefore, if, as plaintiff alleges, defendant did give plaintiff permission to ride the horse, and did instruct plaintiff to hold onto the lead rope while he placed the saddle on the horse, defendant under the common law would have been strictly liable for plaintiff’s injuries. Because EALA abolished strict liability for horse owners, Amburgey v Sauder, 238 Mich App 228, 245 (1999), defendant is not strictly liable for plaintiff’s injuries.

However, EALA did not abolish negligence actions against horse owners. …

Contrary to the dissent’s contention, nowhere in this statement do I suggest that the Legislature’s only goal was to eliminate strict liability. Given that the Legislature enacted a general limitation on liability and four exceptions to this limitation, eliminating strict liability was obviously not the Legislature’s only goal. The dissent also criticizes me for violating the principle of ejusdem generis by failing to read the negligence exception in accord with the other three exceptions. Again, I respectfully disagree, and believe that our disagreement stems from the fact that I also disagree with the dissent’s premise that the other three exceptions pertain to risks that are “above and beyond” the “inherent risk[s] of an equine activity.” Instead, I believe that faulty tack, the rider’s ability not matching the horse’s personality, and dangerous latent conditions of the land are all “inherent risk[s] of an equine activity.” Again, if they were not, there would be no need for the Legislature to exempt them from the general limitation on liability because such limitation only applies in the first place to injuries “resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity.”

Markman was joined by Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly in his concurrence.


Right and Left Join Forces on Criminal Justice

From The New York Times, an interesting story about liberal and conservative groups that agree that law enforcement agencies are going too far.

In the next several months, the Supreme Court will decide at least a half-dozen cases about the rights of people accused of crimes involving drugs, sex and corruption. Civil liberties groups and associations of defense lawyers have lined up on the side of the accused.

Edwin Meese III, a former attorney general, once referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as part of the “criminals’ lobby,” but on this issue, he says, he is willing to work with the group.

But so have conservative, libertarian and business groups. Their briefs and public statements are signs of an emerging consensus on the right that the criminal justice system is an aspect of big government that must be contained.

The development represents a sharp break with tough-on-crime policies associated with the Republican Party since the Nixon administration.