On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-322-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Grall, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves, Grall and Ashrafi.
Plaintiffs Gloria and Michael Hubner appeal from a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Spring Valley Equestrian Center. The trial court concluded that recovery for Gloria's personal injuries and Michael's consequential loss was barred by statutes allocating the risks and costs of equine animal activities, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -11 (the equine activities liability act), and by Gloria's agreement to release Spring Valley from liability for its ordinary negligence.
The facts, stated in light of the evidence and reasonable inferences most favorable to plaintiffs, are as follows. Gloria, Michael and four others in their party went to Spring Valley Equestrian Center to ride Spring Valley's horses on trails with the guidance of a Spring Valley employee. Upon arrival, Gloria signed a rental agreement and a release discharging Spring Valley of its liability for any injury she might sustain due to the ordinary negligence of Spring Valley or its agents in relation to its "premises and operations."
After signing the agreement and release, the members of the Hubner party were taken to a barn in which Spring Valley's horses were stabled. The barn has an open area in which the Hubner party stood before mounting. About fifteen feet from that area, there were between six and eight poles lying on the barn's floor. The poles were made of pine and about six inches in diameter. They were approximately fourteen to sixteen feet long and were positioned parallel to and several feet from one another. The purpose of the poles was to simulate a horse stepping over obstacles along the trail so as to acquaint the horse and rider with such conditions before encountering them on the trails. The barn was also equipped with a set of movable stairs for the use of riders unable to mount a horse from ground level.
Kate Martin, a trainer and trail guide employed by Spring Valley, led a horse known as "Lady" to Gloria. Lady was already bridled and saddled. Gloria mounted from the ground while Martin stood by. At that point, Lady was facing the poles arranged on the ground, but after Gloria was on the horse Martin led Lady away from the mounting area. Whether Martin turned Lady or Lady turned on her own, Lady and Gloria ended up facing in the opposite direction and away from the poles behind them.
Martin left Gloria and Lady and went to get a horse for another member of the Hubner party. Lady whinnied, moved her head up and down and then moved backward. Martin, who had returned, told Gloria to release the reins, which Gloria did immediately. Nonetheless, Lady continued to back up, tripped on the poles and fell. In the process of falling, Lady threw Gloria onto the movable steps, landed on top of Gloria and rolled over Gloria to stand up. Gloria sustained fractures and other injuries.
Plaintiffs' expert, Andrew J. Elder, attributed the accident to Spring Valley's negligence in equipping and using its barn. Elder explained:
The defendant's use of unsecured jumping poles on the ground of the arena, in close proximity to the mounting of the horses, was negligent, and improper. As succinctly stated by author Donna Snyder-Smith in "The All-Around Horse" . . . the poles, called "cavaletti," should be set up correctly:
1. Don't scare your horse by riding him into a long line of poles the very first time you work him over cavaletti.
2. If you use the poles on the ground, be sure they are secured so they will not roll over if ...