On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super. 626 (2009).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Plaintiff Gloria Hubner was injured when she fell off a horse during a visit to defendant Spring Valley Equestrian Center. The issue is whether Hubner's claim is barred by the Equine Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12.
Hubner and others went to Spring Valley to go horseback riding. They were taken to the arena to mount the horses and participate in training. Defendant's employee, Kate Martin, told Hubner how to turn and to pull back on the reins if the horse reared its head. To prepare riders for trail conditions, defendant would have them participate in an exercise in which each horse would walk over a series of wooden rails, called cavaletti. The cavaletti were on the ground in the center of the riding ring. A portable mounting block was also placed near the center. With Martin's help, Hubner got onto the horse without using the block. Martin then led her and the horse away, leaving them facing the cavaletti and mounting block. As Hubner waited, the horse began to turn, eventually facing away from the cavaletti and mounting block. The horse threw its head up and down and began to back up. Hubner screamed and pulled on the reins. Martin told Hubner to stop pulling the reins, but the horse continued moving backwards, tripped over the cavaletti and fell, throwing Hubner. She landed on the mounting block and was injured. Hubner's proposed expert concluded that defendant was negligent because the cavaletti were unsecured and set up near the mounting area behind the horses; horses cannot see behind them and stepping on an unsecured pole could frighten a horse and cause it to fall; and the mounting block was negligently left behind the horse.
The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, concluding that whether Hubner's injury was caused by the horse's unpredictable behavior or because the horse tripped over the cavaletti, the cause was an inherent risk of equine activity and Hubner's claim was therefore barred by the Equine Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12 ("Equine Act"). The court concluded that the statutory exception to immunity for knowingly providing faulty equipment, N.J.S.A. 5:15-9(a), did not apply because the cavaletti were not faulty, but were simply part of the riding ring. Relying heavily on Hubner's expert's opinion, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that notwithstanding the assumption of risks for collisions and the conditions of riding rings, the placement of equipment in a position that creates an unnecessary risk of personal injury may, under certain circumstances, constitute negligent disregard for the participant's safety under another statutory exception, N.J.S.A. 5:15-9(d). The Court granted defendant's petition for certification. 200 N.J. 505 (2009).
HELD: The Equine Act operates as a complete bar to plaintiff's claim because her injuries were caused by one of the inherent risks of equine activities as defined in the statute.
1. In interpreting a statute, courts first read the words chosen by the Legislature in accordance with their ordinary meaning. If the language is not plain or the words are susceptible to more than one meaning, courts look to extrinsic sources. When a dispute rests on several parts of a statute, courts strive to read the provisions in harmony as parts of a single law. (pp. 9-12)
2. The Equine Act declares the Legislature's intent to protect equine activities because of their importance to our economy and open space preservation. The statute defines a non-exhaustive list of inherent risks integral to equine activity, including the unpredictability of a horse's reaction to sounds, unfamiliar people, and collisions with objects. The statute provides that participants assume the inherent risks created by horses, riding rings, and "other inherent conditions." The act serves as a complete defense to a suit against an operator by a participant for injuries resulting from the assumed risks, notwithstanding the comparative negligence statute. The statutory exceptions to the broad protection afforded to facility operators include where the operator knowingly provides faulty equipment or negligently disregards a participant's safety. On their surface, the words that define the assumed risks and the words that set forth the exceptions are broad and conflict, revealing a latent ambiguity in the overall meaning of the statute. Thus, the Court must delve behind the particular words chosen. (pp. 12-16)
3. The legislative history of the Equine Act includes a Committee Statement expressing the intent to ensure that participants injured because of a defined assumed risk would be barred from recovery. The Equine Act is one of a series of statutes using assumption of risk principles to allocate responsibility for injuries sustained in inherently dangerous recreational activities. Another statute, the Ski Act, was adopted after a Vermont court decided, in part based on Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions, Inc. (N.J. 1959), that the assumption of the risk doctrine did not bar suit if the injury was caused by a condition of the "field" rather than by the "playing of the sport" itself. Our Legislature responded by statutorily defining the responsibilities of ski area operators, limiting their liability to a breach of those duties, and identifying skiers' duties and the risks that they assume. The statute provides that the participant's assumption of defined risks bars recovery, and our comparative negligence statute only applies if the operator breached a defined duty. (pp. 16-20)
4. In Meistrich, the Court discussed the allocation of losses for inherently dangerous recreational injuries. The "primary" assumption of the risk refers to an obvious inherent risk, as to which the facility operator owes participants no duty and a claim based on the risk is barred. The "secondary" sense of assumption of risk arises where the operator has a duty and breaches it, but asserts as an affirmative defense that the participant "voluntarily exposed himself to a risk negligently created" by the operator. Viewed in the appropriate historical context, the Ski Act is consistent with the description of assumption of the risk in Meistrich, but clarified its implications by defining both the duties of the operator, the breach of which can give rise to liability, and the risks assumed, for which claims are barred. Thus, the Legislature made clear its intent that its intervening enactment of the Comparative Negligence Act would not alter that analysis. (pp. 20-22)
5. Similar to the Ski Act, the Roller Skating Rink Act is explicitly intended to encourage the activity and recognizes its contribution to the economy. It defines the operator's duties, the breach of which is subject to comparative negligence analysis, and fixes the skater's responsibilities by defining assumed risks that operate as a bar to recovery. Although the pattern of the Equine Act does not precisely mirror the Ski Act and Roller Skating Rink Act, all reflect an effort to protect recreational facility operators from liability by maintaining an assumption of risk defense against injuries resulting from inherent conditions of the activity or facility, while ensuring that the facility is managed in a reasonable manner. (pp. 22-24)
6. The Equine Act establishes a line between the inherent risks assumed by participants and conditions within a facility's control. The demonstrated legislative intent is that the sections defining assumed risks would be read broadly in favor of operators, while their obligations would be read narrowly. Harmonizing the provisions requires viewing them in the context of an activity with inherent dangers beyond an operator's control. The Legislature considered the unpredictable nature of horses and the dangers posed by the terrain over which they are ridden. While the statute precludes claims for injuries caused by uncontrollable risks, it also reflects that a facility operator owes participants certain ordinary duties of care. Under one exception, a facility will not avoid liability if it knowingly provides faulty equipment. That exception clearly covers providing a badly worn girth strap that breaks and causes a rider to fall, but it does not apply to Hubner's claim. The cavaletti, which were in good working order, were not "faulty" because they were not secured. (pp. 24-27)
7. Another exception provides for liability where the operator acted with "negligent disregard for the participant's safety." The historical background in which the Equine Act was adopted and the overall intention expressed by the Legislature demand that the exception be narrowly read. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the injury arose not because of an inherent danger of the sport, but because the facility's operator breached a recognized duty of care owed to participants, as defined in the statute's exceptions. A contrary approach, reading the exceptions expansively, would threaten to upset the Legislature's choice, because it would potentially permit the exceptions to extinguish the statute's broad protective scope. (pp. 28-30)
8. In this case, it is undisputed that the cavaletti were in good condition and were on the ground in the ring, where they were part of the equipment to be used to train the riders. Hubner was seated on the horse facing the cavaletti while awaiting the other riders. The horse began to turn until the cavaletti were behind it, after which it moved its head up and down and began moving backwards, eventually tripping over the cavaletti. Those undisputed facts fall within the defined inherent dangers of equine activity and therefore within the risks Hubner assumed. To the extent the proposed expert opined that defendant was negligent for leaving the cavaletti and mounting block behind the horse, that is not supported by the record. (pp. 30-31)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the judgment of the Law Division is REINSTATED.
JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens
Plaintiff Gloria Hubner was injured when she fell off a horse during a visit to defendant Spring Valley Equestrian Center in Newton. Defendant argues that even after giving plaintiff the benefit of all favorable factual inferences, her claim is barred by the Equine Activities Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12 (Equine Act), or, alternatively, by the terms of a release she signed before mounting the horse. Defendant therefore asserts that in reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment in its favor, the Appellate Division erred both in its analysis of the meaning of the Equine Act, see Hubner v. Spring Valley Equestrian Ctr., 408 N.J. Super. 626, 634 (App. Div. 2009), and in its conclusion that the release was unenforceable, id. at 637.
Because we agree with defendant that plaintiff's injuries were caused by one of the inherent risks of equine activities as defined in the Equine Act, see N.J.S.A. 5:15-2, -3, and that the Equine Act operates as a complete bar to plaintiff's claim, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division on that ground. We need not, and therefore we do not, express any opinion on the validity of the release.
The facts are not materially in dispute. On September 3, 2005, plaintiff Gloria Hubner,*fn1 along with her husband and a number of family members and friends, went to the Spring Valley Equestrian Center to go horseback riding. After signing a release form, plaintiff and the others were taken to the arena to mount the horses and participate in a training session prior to going out onto the trails.
As part of the planned training, plaintiff was instructed by Kate Martin, an employee of defendant Spring Valley, about how to manage the horse. Martin explained to plaintiff that she should pull the reins to the left to go left, that she should pull the reins to the right to go right, and that she should pull back on the reins if the horse began to rear its head. In addition to giving those instructions, defendant's practice was to prepare the riders for expected trail conditions by having the riders participate in an exercise in which each horse would walk over a series of wooden rails, called cavaletti. In anticipation of that exercise, the cavaletti had been placed on the ground near the center of the riding ring.
Plaintiff was the third member of her party to mount a horse. A portable mounting block had been placed near the center of the riding ring to assist the riders in getting on the horses, but plaintiff declined to use it. She was able to get onto the horse from the ground near the mounting block with Martin's assistance and when plaintiff mounted her horse, she and the horse were facing the cavaletti. After plaintiff was on the horse, Martin led plaintiff and the horse away from the mounting area to wait for the other riders to mount their horses. Martin left plaintiff positioned so that she and the horse continued to face the cavaletti and the portable mounting block.
As plaintiff waited for the others, the horse began to turn slowly to the right, and continued to turn, eventually completing a rotation of 180 degrees, so that plaintiff and her horse were no longer facing the center of the arena, the cavaletti, or the portable mounting block. The horse then threw its head up and down, whinnied, and began to move backwards. Plaintiff started screaming and pulling backward on the reins, which alerted Martin, who was then helping another rider to mount one of the other horses. Martin called out to plaintiff to stop pulling on the reins and, although plaintiff immediately complied, the horse continued to move backwards, increasing its speed until it tripped over one of the cavaletti. The horse then fell and plaintiff was thrown from it, landing on the portable mounting block, which caused her injuries.
During discovery, plaintiff produced the proposed expert report of Andrew Elder,*fn2 who concluded that defendant was negligent and that its negligence caused plaintiff's injuries. Elder opined that defendant was negligent because the cavaletti were unsecured and were set up near the mounting area and "behind the horses." He explained that "[h]orses cannot see behind them and the stepping on the unsecured pole would cause the horse to be further frightened and could cause it to fall as it did." He also commented that plaintiff's injuries were exacerbated because, ...