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Stoffels v. Harmony Hill Farm

December 18, 2006


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-2792-03.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff, P.J.A.D.



Argued: September 27, 2006

Before Judges Cuff, Fuentes and Messano.

This appeal raises issues of first impression regarding the interpretation of the statute governing the responsibilities and liabilities of individuals involved in equestrian activities. Plaintiff appeals from an order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants, the owners of the horse plaintiff was riding when she was thrown and injured. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for trial.

Our standard of review of a summary judgment order is the same as the motion judge. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). Thus, we canvass the record to determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact, noting that in Brill v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, 142 N.J. 520 (1995), the Court stated:

[A] determination whether there exists a "genuine issue" of material fact that precludes summary judgment requires the motion judge to consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party. [Id. at 540.]

The following are the facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff.

Defendants Barbara Cammeyer, a lifelong horsewoman, and her husband*fn1 purchased Harmony Hill Farm in 1990 in order to enjoy their respective hobbies of training fox hunters and breeding thoroughbred racehorses. They regularly kept twenty horses on the farm, ten of which were theirs. The remainder belonged to various boarders. Defendant employed a variety of freelance riders/trainers to assist her in training and exercising her fox hunters. She did not require that those she hired possess particular training certifications, preferring to assess for herself whether these riders/trainers possessed suitable skills to work with her horses.

In the summer of 2002, defendant began looking for some "green" horses to train and sell as fox hunters. She communicated with Kristin Gabrielson, a certified horse trainer in Minnesota, who had a number of horses for sale. Defendant told Gabrielson that she was looking for horses that were quiet and had no vices, including bucking. After viewing videos of Gabrielson's horses, defendant decided in December 2002 to pay a visit to Gabrielson's farm.

While in Minnesota, defendant learned that one of the sale horses, a five-and-one-half-year-old Belgian Paint crossbred mare named Glory, had been used as a driving horse in a paired team for the past two years, and that Gabrielson herself had just broken her to saddle a few months earlier. During the two months prior to defendant's visit, Gabrielson had been riding Glory two to three times per week. She showed defendant a videotape of Glory calmly galloping across a field while under saddle, as well as being ridden past a number of potentially scary objects without incident. Gabrielson vouched for Glory and the other sale horses by noting that she had recently recovered from a broken neck and now only rode horses she felt were completely safe. Gabrielson submitted an affidavit in support of defendants' motion for summary judgment in which she confirmed Glory's prior training schedule and also asserted that she never knew Glory to buck.

Due to the extreme cold, defendant rode Glory in Gabrielson's indoor riding arena and found Glory to be responsive and obedient. Defendant ultimately purchased Glory and four other horses from Gabrielson: three additional Belgian Paint crossbreds that she named Glimmer, Gabriella, and Gypsy; and a registered quarter horse named Gigi. Of these horses, Glimmer was both the youngest, at only four years of age, and the smallest, at just over fifteen hands. Gigi was the next in size, followed by Glory, at 15.2 hands, then Gabriella, and finally Gypsy who, at seventeen hands, was the largest of the group.*fn2

After concluding the sale, defendant asked Gabrielson to continue working all five of the horses until she could have them shipped to New Jersey. Although Gabrielson agreed, defendant did not know whether Gabrielson actually did so. The horses were not delivered to defendant until February 26, 2003.

Upon the arrival of her new horses, defendant selected from among her six saddles of varying sizes and styles to find the one(s) that best fit each horse. She found that two of her wider saddles fit Glory, who had a relatively broad back. Defendant also fit Glory with a bridle and a gentle snaffle bit.

Defendant found Glory to be the easiest and quietest of the five new horses to ride, even though she was still "green." Two of the other new horses, Gabriella and Gypsy, were difficult from the start and bucked off their respective riders on one or more occasions. Defendant insisted that she rode Glory without incident both in her outdoor ring and cross-country.

According to defendant, Glory was ridden on a daily basis in March and April either by herself or by one of six other riders/trainers defendant regularly employed. She further maintained that she personally rode Glory three times per week. However, defendant was unable to produce a riding log for March, and she could not recall whether Glory was actually ridden that month or whether the weather, a trip defendant might have taken, an operation she had undergone, or a possible breakdown of the tractor she used to clear her property, had prevented all riding. She did note that because she was accustomed to riding in the snow, she did not have an indoor riding ring.

Additionally, according to an April riding log produced by defendant, Glory was exercised on only ten occasions, including six times under saddle with either defendant or one other rider, between April 3 and April 23. Defendant acknowledged that she was somewhat short-handed in March and April because the young woman ...

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