A California appellate court ruling earlier this year, Eriksson v. Nunnink, has sparked concern among equine enthusiasts over the potential liability of equine professionals for their clients’ personal injury and/or death. The defendant, Nunnink, is an equine professional. This case is educational for all equine professionals because it addresses issues of professional judgment, candor with clients, the scope of risks considered “inherent” to equine activities, and the scope and effectiveness of written liability releases.
The Erikssons sued Nunnink, the US Equestrian Federation, the US Eventing Association, and other defendants following the death of their teenage daughter, Mia, in early November 2006. Mia sustained fatal injuries during the cross-country phase of the Galway Downs three-day event, which was her first two-star competition. Mia’s own horse, Kory, fell on course and crushed her.
This case has been working its way through the California courts since May 2008, and is current scheduled for trial in January 2012. At this point, Nunnink has not been found liable for any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, understanding how the California courts analyze the factual and legal issues in this case may enable equine professionals minimize the potential risk of client injuries or death, not to mention the resulting litigation.
How Did This Tragedy Happen?
The Erikssons owned a large equestrian boarding facility in California, where Nunnink gave Mia riding lessons three times a week. Nunnink coached Mia at three-day competitions, and had been a professional trainer for 25 years. In early 2006, Mrs. Eriksson signed a liability release purportedly releasing Nunnink from liability for Mia’s injury or death. One of Mia’s competitive goals for 2006 was to participate at Galway Downs.
In September, Kory hit a jump while competing in the Twin Rivers one-star event. The horse developed a “big bruise” from the impact, though it is unclear where this bruise was located. Nunnink was dissatisfied with Kory’s performance after this competition and wanted Mia to have “more mileage” prior to Galway Downs. Nunnink consequently entered Kory at Ram Tap, another one-star event, in late October.
Eriksson and Nunnink agreed that if Kory “had trouble” at Ram Tap, that competition would be “the end of the season.” At Ram Tap, Kory tripped while jumping cross-country and fell to his knees, hit his head and nose on the ground, and sustained a concussion and a hematoma and scrapes on his chest and pectoral area. The event veterinarian examined Kory, and recommended anti-inflammatories, cold therapy, close monitoring for signs of head trauma, and a follow up examination with Kory’s regular veterinarian. The pair withdrew from the remainder of the competition.
After Ram Tap, Nunnink told Mrs. Eriksson that Kory was “very lame” and she was going to take the horse “home with her.” Mrs. Eriksson believed the horse was lame and that Mia should not compete at Galway Downs; Mia’s competition season would be over. Kory was not schooled over fences during the week after Ram Tap. His shoes and his feed were changed, suggesting his competition season was indeed over.
Within three weeks, Mia and Kory travelled to Galway Downs. According to Mrs. Eriksson, the pair went to Galway Downs only so Mia could socialize with her friends and care for Kory. However, Mrs. Eriksson testified she was misled by “a little plot” between Mia and Nunnink. After Mia and Kory arrived at the event, Nunnink convinced Mrs. Eriksson to allow the pair to compete in the dressage phase despite Mrs. Eriksson’s concern that Kory still had a “huge wound” at this point. Kory apparently passed both of the mandatory veterinary checks – once upon arrival and again prior to the dressage phase – required under USEF and/or USEA rules. The pair then competed in dressage.
After the dressage phase, Mia called her mother and told her she would be competing in cross-country the next day. Mrs. Eriksson refused to allow it, citing her prior agreement with Nunnink that the horse would not “run any more” that season. Mrs. Eriksson testified she told Nunnink that Mia was not allowed compete the following day. However, according to Mrs. Eriksson, Nunnink repeatedly reassured her Kory had schooled well over fences earlier in the week and was ready to compete cross-country. Nunnink’s statements regarding Kory’s preparedness were apparently false.
Mrs. Eriksson testified that on the morning of the cross-country phase, Nunnink told her to “shut up” and that she should not worry; Nunnink would pull Kory from the competition if he wasn’t performing well. Nunnink again reassured Mrs. Eriksson the horse had been schooling well. Mrs. Eriksson also testified she did not tell Mia that day she wasn’t allowed to ride because Nunnink had “already made the decision.” Mrs. Eriksson also did not tell the event officials that Mia was not permitted to ride cross-country. Based upon Nunnink’s statements and expertise, Mrs. Eriksson relented, allowing Mia to ride in her last, fatal ride.
Nunnink testified the Galway Downs two-star course was “very challenging,” yet Mia and Kory had the training, capability, and experience to compete at that level. Nunnink testified no one complained that Kory was acting strangely or out of the ordinary during the pair’s warm up for cross-country, or that Kory posed a danger to Mia. Nunnink also testified that she “would have said something” if she believed Mia’s horses should not be competing.
Nunnink testified she had a “barn rule” that if one of her riders had two refusals on course, the rider must pull up. In stark contrast to Nunnink’s testimony, Mrs. Eriksson testified Nunnink had no such rule, and Nunnink instead, “had a practice of telling Mia to keep riding despite the number of refusals…”
Mia and Kory started the cross-country course after warming up. By Fence 10, the pair was unfortunately in trouble: Kory had already refused 3 times. A fourth refusal would disqualify them. Competition rules prohibited Mrs. Eriksson and Nunnink from communicating with Mia on course. Nunnink admitted that at this point she knew “things were not going well,” yet Mia and Kory continued on. Kory refused a fourth time at Fence 17; Mia and Kory continued on despite being disqualified. The fence judge at Fence 20 was directed to stop the pair. Tragically, Mia and Kory never made it that far. At Fence 19, Kory balked and tripped over the fence. Mia flew over Kory’s head and hit the ground. Kory fell, crushing Mia. She later died at the hospital from her injuries.
Nunnink testified Mia and Kory, “obviously…did something wrong,” Kory “didn’t want to go out that day,” and Mia, “kept encouraging him, and at some point he…made a mistake.”
What Happened At The Trial Court?
The Erikssons sued Nunnink for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. To win, the Erikssons need to prove Nunnink:
– Nunnink owed Mia a duty of care;
– Nunnink breached the duty owed to Mia; and
– Nunnink’s action (or inaction) legally caused Mia’s death.
More specifically, the Erikssons’ claims are based on four basic arguments:
– Nunnink, as Mia’s instructor, owed Mia a duty of care not to increase her risk of death by allowing her to compete with Kory;
– Nunnink breached her duty of care to Mia by allowing her to compete with Kory when she knew, or should have known, the horse was unfit for competition because of his prior injuries and his lack of schooling prior to Galway Downs;
– Who has the ‘final say’ over whether a client or the client’s horse competes? You or your client? Why?
– How forthright are you with your clients about the ability, soundness, condition, and limitations of the horses they own, ride, or want to buy? Why?
– What instructions, if any, have you given your clients about pulling up or stopping during a lesson or competition if it is not going well? Why?
– What policies, if any, do you have to monitor and rehabilitate injured horses in your program? Are these policies any different for horses with brain injuries? Why?
– What policies, if any, do you have to “clear” a horse to return to work or competition after an injury, including a brain injury? Why?
– How receptive are you to hearing your clients’ concerns about their own riding ability, limitations, and fears, or those of their children? Why?
– How receptive are you to hearing your clients’ concerns about their horses’ ability, training, soundness, condition, and limitations? Why?
– Do your clients sign a written liability release, and do you understand its limitations? Why?
– If a minor child rides or trains with you, do both parents sign a written liability release? Why?
– Do you have liability insurance? Will your insurance adequately protect you if your client, or your client’s horse, is injured or killed while under your care, supervision, direction, or control?
– Do you understand your state’s equine inherent risk law, if there is one, and its limitations?