The subject of compensation and liability has been a hot topic among those who earn their living from horses. Indeed, the perceived ‘compensation culture’ has been blamed for the hike in indemnity insurance for equestrian centres and held responsible for several riding schools going out of business.
However, a recent decision by the Court of Appeal should go some way towards reassuring those involved with horses that, providing a common sense approach to managing risk is undertaken, claims against them for injury will not necessarily result in an automatic pay out.
A competent rider, Kara Goldsmith, claimed for damages, under the Animals Act 1971, against Robert Patchcott, when she was thrown from a horse, for which he was responsible at the time, and was severely injured. She lost her initial claim but was given leave to appeal.
At the time of the incident, Mr Patchcott was looking after the horse, Red, and trying to find it a suitable home free of charge. Ms Goldsmith expressed interest and rode the horse, in company with Mr Patchcott, prior to the incident. This gave Mr Patchcott ample opportunity to assess Ms Goldsmith’s competence as he had freely admitted the horse was not a novice ride and needed an experienced rider. On the day of the accident, Ms Goldsmith decided, with Mr Patchcott’s agreement, to ride Red on her own. Returning to the stables, Red spooked, reared and bucked violently causing Ms Goldsmith to fall off. His hoof caught her face, causing severe injuries.
Ms Goldsmith’s claim relied on Section 2 (2) of the Animals Act 1971 which is well known in legal circles for its obscure wording, despite various attempts by eminent lawyers to interpret it. However, this particular case has helped to clarify it. Section 2 (2) relates to the damage that could be caused by a domesticated animal but the wording implies that there are different degrees of damage. It was accepted that horses, when spooked, can do a number of unpredictable things, one of which is to buck if frightened. This fell within the definition of damage caused by a domesticated animal and on this basis Ms Goldsmith’s claim was found to be valid.
Robert Patchcott relied for his defence on Section 5 of the Act because Ms Goldsmith had accepted that there was an inherent risk in riding Red whose behaviour, Mr Patchcott had warned her, was unpredictable. However, she maintained that, although she had been told that Red was not an easy ride, she would not have ridden him out if she knew that he was likely to have bucked as violently as he did.
The Judge rejected Ms Goldsmith’s arguments on the basis that she had been warned that there was risk, which she voluntarily accepted, in riding Red. The fact that the horse had bucked sufficiently violently to throw her off was irrelevant; in line with a similar case, the judge determined that if someone consents to ride a horse liable to buck then that consent extends to any type of buck the horse might do. The claim was dismissed.
Had Mr Patchcott not warned Ms Goldsmith the horse was likely to spook badly, than he might have been liable for the injuries sustained by Ms Goldsmith. This case is a useful warning: be upfront and honest about a horse’s characteristics and give the potential rider the opportunity to accept the risk of riding it. It is also a stark reminder to all riders that horses are flight animals and can react violently when frightened. It is also worth bearing in mind that if a horse is being given away free, it is likely to be for a good reason!