If Scuppy Lived in Georgia

Part II of The Connecticut Horse Bite Case

In a previous article, I summarized the recent ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court in Vendrella v. Astriab Family Ltd. Partnership regarding Scuppy, the horse who bit a 2-year-old child. The following is the second part of that article, summarizing the applicable law and cases in Georgia with an analysis of how Georgia law may treat the facts presented in the Vendrella case.

The Equine Activities Act

As many of us are aware, in 1991, the Georgia Assembly passed the Equine Activities Act. (O.C.G.A. §§4-12-1 through 5). Even if you were not aware of its passage, the majority of us have seen the warning signs posted at barns and show grounds. You have probably also signed waivers with the same or similar language.

WARNING
UNDER GEORGIA LAW, AN EQUINE ACTIVITY SPONSOR OR EQUINE PROFESSIONAL IS NOT LIABLE FOR AN INJURY TO OR THE DEATH OF A PARTICIPANT IN EQUINE ACTIVITIES RESULTING FROM THE INHERENT RISKS OF EQUINE ACTIVITIES, PURSUANT TO CHAPTER 12 OF TITLE 4 OF THE OFFICIAL CODE OF GEORGIA ANNOTATED.

For all of us engaged in horse activities, be reminded that a posting of this sign is required to invoke the protections afforded under the law. Typically, postings at the barn where riding occurs, in an area where people are meeting to ride, or on a car windshield at the beginning of a trail ride, will be deemed sufficient. Once the law is invoked, it provides a level of protection against injuries that occur in what we would consider the normal course of dealing with horses—spooking, slipping, or colliding with other riders.

In cases where injuries occur while riding, the court will typically look to the type of injury and the circumstances surrounding it. In a 1997 case where an experienced rider was bucked off and injured, the court applied an “assumption of the risk” type analysis. In a 1996 case where a rider was kicked by another horse while riding, the court examined whether the horse routinely kicked or if the behavior is one to be expected in the general course of horses riding together in a group. In both of these cases, there was no liability found on the part of the horse owner.

However, the law does have its limits. If a horse owner or trainer misrepresents the nature of the horse, stating it is a “good, broke horse,” when in fact, it is only green, then the protections of the Act will not apply. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the horse professional to “make reasonable and prudent efforts” when matching ability levels of horses and riders. In other words, a horse professional should not put an inexperienced rider on a difficult horse.

Georgia Vicious Animal Statute

Underpinning the Equine Activities Act is Georgia’s law regarding liability for injuries caused by an animal. (O.C.G.A. §51-2-7). The law provides that for an owner to be liable for an injury caused by an animal, the owner had to be aware of the “vicious and dangerous character of the animal.” If the owner is not aware, then there is no liability.

This statute appears to be the one relied upon most by courts when dealing with injuries sustained on the ground by laypersons. In cases occurring both before and after the passing of the Act, when the injury was to a person on the ground, either by kicking or being knocked into a fence, the court did not analyze the decision using the Act, but by using the statute. This is in part because under the Act, protected equine activities are limited to participants in riding, training, or participant assistants, and does not generally extend to ordinary people such as spectators. The court has repeatedly found that to prevail on damages for injuries caused by a horse not covered under the Act, it is necessary to show that the horse was vicious and dangerous and that the owner of the horse had knowledge of that fact.

If Scuppy Lived in Georgia

The circumstances in the Vendrella case presented a farm with two uses: a plant nursery business and a horse boarding facility. The owner of the farm knew that after people came to his nursery, they often went to pet the horses. It was in visiting the horses that Scuppy bit a two-year-old child on the cheek, causing injury.

In the facts given in the case, Scuppy did not have a known propensity to bite and had never bitten before. In the state of Georgia, although the Act may not have come into play, as the boy and his father were not “participants” in an equine activity, the lack of propensity for biting would have probably ended the analysis for the Scuppy’s owner. However, there is an additional analysis required for the farm owner under premises liability.

The boy and his father in Vendrella were patronizing the plant nursery, and as such, they are legally termed “invitees.” In Georgia, the owner of the land has a duty to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises safe for “invitees.” However, if the invitee goes beyond the area he was invited into, he then becomes a “licensee.” (A common example would be a store patron going into the room marked “Employees Only.”) When that happens, the landowner only has to protect against “willful or wanton injury”—a very high legal burden. The question for Vendrella would be, where is that line between “invitee” and “licensee?” If the farm owner had signs stating not to go into the boarding area or not to approach the horses, then the father and child would likely become “licensees” as they approached the horses, decreasing the chance for liability.

However, in Vendrella there were no signs, and the farm owner knew that nursery patrons often visited the horses. So, does that mean they remained “invitees?” If so, then the analysis might swing the other way and involve questions regarding ordinary care and whether it was foreseeable that someone may be injured. This is very similar to the analysis engaged in by the court in Connecticut. In the end, this would likely be a jury question, and juries by their very nature, are as unpredictable as any animal—domesticated or otherwise.

Conclusion

The law today in Georgia is written to be favorable for horse owners, trainers, professionals, and sponsors. As long as all participants are acting responsibly, the law provides an important and effective layer of protection.* However, the Vendrella case also highlights that there are other avenues from which suit may be brought. It is always in your best interest to be careful and to consider those worst-case scenarios. Even if you are ultimately found not liable in a pending case, defending yourself is time consuming and expensive. An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure, or in the case of equine activities, a five-dollar sign may ultimately save your farm.

*So effective in fact, that in February 2014, Georgia House Bill 1063, was proposed to amend the Act to include “livestock activities” which would encompass pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep. The Bill did not pass in 2014, but was successfully added in the 2017-2018 session (House Bill 50).


Jennifer Jarvis is a practicing attorney with Georgia Advocate Partners. She is a dressage rider, horse owner, farm owner, and member of GDCTA. The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. You should not act upon this information without consulting legal counsel.

Categories:

Comments are closed