California Appeals Court Upholds Ruling in Nunnink Trial

California Appeals Court Upholds Ruling in Nunnink Trial

 

by Catherine Golden

The California Court of Appeals held that a minor’s release of liability was enforceable against her parents in their wrongful death claims against their daughter’s horse trainer. The Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling granting the defendant’s motion for judgment relieving horse trainer Kristi Nunnink of liability.

Mia Eriksson, the 17-year-old daughter of Karan and Stan Eriksson, was an accomplished rider and aspired to be a member of the Olympic equestrian team.  In May 2006, she commenced training with Nunnink. At that time, Mia and Nunnink entered into a release of liability agreement in which Mia, as “Rider,” agreed to release Nunnink, as “Trainer,” from all liability except for damages caused by Nunnink’s “direct, willful and wanton negligence.” Mia’s mother, Karan, also signed the release as the “Rider’s Parent.”

After competing in a number of intermediate 3-day events over the summer and early fall, Mia entered the Galway Downs event in southern California which would be her first “two-star” event. The only horse Mia rode in 2006 was Kory.

Prior to the Galway event Kory sustained a contusion to his chest when he tripped and fell near a jump. However, he was cleared to compete at Galway.

After Kory’s fall, Mia’s mother did not want her to compete at Galway Downs. Mia had also had a few “rough rides” during competition and Karen told Nunnink that Mia “was done” for the year. The following day Kory did very well with Mia during practice jumps and eventually, Mia, with Nunnink’s support, was allowed to compete on Kory at Galway in the dressage phase only.

At Galway, Kory was cleared by the veterinarian to compete. Mia finished 41st out of 44 in dressage. Mia wanted to compete the next day in the cross country phase. Her mother was adamant that she could not. Karan spoke with Nunnink who said both Kory and Mia were physically sound and capable of performing and Karen gave Mia the go ahead.

During the cross-country event Kory refused four jumps, and therefore Mia was eliminated from the competition. However, she continued to ride the course. Kory hit a fence, fell over it and landed on his back crushing Mia. She died from her injuries sustained in the rotational fall. Both Stan and Karan Eriksson were watching when their daughter was killed.

The Erickssons filed a wrongful death action against trainer Nunnink who initially prevailed on a motion for summary judgment. The Erickssons’ appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision. The case proceeded to trial and after the Erikssons’ case-in-chief the Court granted Nunnink’s motion for entry of judgment relying on the release executed by Mia.
The Erickssons appealed, contending that the release was ambiguous and argued that Nunnink’s reference to herself as “trainer,” instead of coach, meant the term applied only to her training of the horses, not to her coaching of their daughter. The Court of Appeals disagreed, because the release defined “trainer” as Nunnink and the term “trainer” throughout the release was effectively only a placeholder for Nunnink’s name.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision and held that the release was enforceable and could be asserted by Nunnink as a defense to the Erikssons’ claims. The release expressly provided: “[w]hen the Trainer, Rider and (if minor) Rider’s parent sign this Release, it will then be irrevocable and binding on all parties, subject to the above terms and conditions.” Under these circumstances, the release could not be disaffirmed even though Mia was a minor. The court stated that although Karan’s signature prevented the agreement from being disaffirmed, it did not make her a party to the release. The release clearly identified the only parties as Nunnink and Mia.

In the release, Mia expressly agreed to release Nunnink from liability for claims, causes of action, and damages, including “those based on death.” Although Mia could not release or waive her parents’ wrongful death claims, it is well-settled law that a release of future liability or express assumption of the risk by the decedent may be asserted as a defense to such claims. Although a wrongful death cause of action is not derived from the rights of the decedent, the duty of care that was owed to Mia was negated by her in the release. Because Nunnink can owe no greater duty to the heirs than to Mia, the release of any claims would cause any wrongful death action to fail. Nunnink could thus rely on Mia’s release as a defense to the Erikssons’ cause of action for wrongful death. The same principle applied to the Erikssons’ emotional distress claims.

The Court concluded that the Erikssons could prevail on their claims against Nunnink only if they could show that she was grossly negligent. In the unpublished portion of its opinion, the court found the Erikssons failed to make such a showing.

 

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