Understanding Negligence and Liability: “Determining Negligence” (Part 2)

 By Doyice Cotten

In last week’s post Understanding Negligence and Liability (Part 1), we addressed this issue of negligence. This post presents another example to help the reader better understand the concept[1].

The following illustration regarding Happy Holiday Stables should help the reader to better understand what constitutes negligence.

Duty

To illustrate, suppose Happy Holiday Stables rents a horse to a novice rider for a trail ride. Due to their relationship of equine provider and client, Happy Holiday has the duty to protect the rider from unreasonable risk of injury. To fulfill this duty, the stable has many obligations to the novice rider. Some obligations required to fulfill the provider’s  duty to protect  might include providing a properly trained horse, matching the rider to the appropriate horse, providing proper tack, correctly saddling the horse, warning the rider of the inherent risks, providing basic instruction if needed, and providing a competent, qualified employee to supervise and lead the ride. If the stable met all of its obligations and the client fell from the horse and broke a leg when the horse was startled by a nearby lightning strike (an inherent risk of a trail ride), Happy Holiday would not be liable because 1) it fulfilled its duty to protect the rider from the unreasonable risk of injury and 2) the stable is not required to protect the rider from the inherent risks of the activity. (Check next week’s post for more detail on inherent risk.)

Breach of Duty

In the Happy Holiday Stables illustration, the business relationship between Happy Holidays and the novice rider imposes the duty to protect the rider from unreasonable risk of injury. Two obligations of the stable include the provision of good tack and proper saddling of the horse. If the novice rider falls and breaks a leg because worn and faulty tack breaks or because the Happy Holiday employee failed to tighten the saddle adequately resulting in a slipping saddle, Happy Holiday could be liable for negligence because the stable failed to meet its obligations and breached its duty to protect the rider from unreasonable risk of injury.

Proximate Cause

Returning to the Happy Holiday Stables illustration, one of the obligations of the stable is to consider the ability and experience of the rider when assigning a horse. Suppose the stable employee fails to assign a disciplined, easy-to-handle horse to a novice rider, the undisciplined horse is too headstrong for the novice rider to control, and the novice falls from the horse breaking a leg, Happy Holiday might be liable for negligence. On the other hand, suppose the employee fails to properly match the horse to the rider and the horse bolts when struck by a snake, causing the rider to be thrown breaking a leg, Happy Holiday would not be liable because the breach of duty had nothing to do with the injury because even a properly matched horse would have bolted under the circumstances. Happy Holiday would not be liable because the breach of duty was not the proximate cause of the injury.

Injury

Finally, in the Happy Holiday Stables illustration, the novice rider suffered a broken leg due to the fall from the horse. A physical injury such as this constitutes damage and creates the possibility of monetary recovery if a negligent act by the Happy Holidays was the proximate cause of the injury. In the event of negligence, the court can award compensatory damages (e.g., medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages in the case of a working adult). The plaintiff would not be eligible for punitive damages because the conduct of the stables was ordinary negligence and involved no outrageous conduct. If the injury results from an inherent risk of horseback riding (e.g., horse bolting because of a snake or nearby lightning strike), Happy Holidays would not be liable and there would be no damages awarded.

Conclusion

            So, providers wondering about possible negligence should ask the four questions: Was there a duty? Was the duty breached? Was there injury or damage? And was the breach of duty, the proximate cause of the injury? If a court would answer YES to all four of these questions, this would constitute negligence and possible liability.

Note: See next week’s post addressing the three causes of injury in Part 3 of the series.


[1] This example is taken from Chapter 2.11Negligence in Cotten, D.J. and Wolohan, J.T. Law for Recreation and Sport Managers (6th ed.), Kendall Hunt: Dubuque, IA, 2013.