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Indiana Court of Appeals Opines Horse Riding in Arena Is a Sporting Activity Not Subject to Ordinary Negligence Instruction and Subject to Inherent and Incurred Risk Instructions

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s decision refusing to give a negligence jury instruction but giving jury instructions on inherent risks of equine activities and incurred risk in a horse-related injury case. In Burdick v. Romano, the Plaintiff, Kathleen Burdick, and the Defendant, Julie Romano, were riding horses in a horse arena. According to Burdick, Romano’s horse, which was known to be aggressive and kick other horses, kicked Burdick after being left unattended by Romano. Romano claimed that Burdick simply fell off her horse. Burdick suffered a broken shoulder and brain injury and filed a lawsuit against Romano for her injuries.

A jury trial was held, and the jury found in favor of Romano, finding Burdick to be 65% at fault and Romano 35% at fault. Under the modified comparative fault approach outlined in Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, a plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for personal injuries when the plaintiff’s fault is greater than the fault of all other persons causing the injury. Burdick appealed the verdict arguing the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to give a negligence jury instruction and in giving jury instructions on inherent risks of equine activities and incurred risk.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision finding the parties were engaged in a sporting activity and therefore a negligence instruction was not warranted. The Court recognized previous cases categorizing as sporting activities non-competitive golf, riding a mountain bike alone on a bike trail, and practicing karate kicks during a karate class. Here, after examining the statutory definition of “equine activity,” Ind. Code § 34-6-2-41, which the Court found did not preclude sporting activities, the Court examined the parties’ activities, including riding in an arena (as opposed to pasture or other country terrain) and performing tricks and training related to the sport of horse-back riding, and found that the parties were engaged in a sporting activity. Under Indiana law, when a sports participant injures someone while engaging in conduct ordinary in the sport, and without intent or recklessness, the participant does not, as a matter of law, breach any duty of care. The Court of Appeals found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s refusal to give a negligence instruction because the evidence did not support giving a negligence instruction and because giving a negligence instruction would have been confusing and misleading to the jury.

Burdick also argued on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion in giving instructions on the inherent risks of equine activities and incurred risk. While finding Burdick had waived any error as to the trial court’s instruction on the inherent risks of equine activity, which were noted to include, among other things, the risk of injury arising from the potential of a participant to fail to maintain control over an animal, the Court of Appeals nonetheless found the instruction to be an accurate statement of the law, consistent with the statutory definition of inherent risks from equine activities, Ind. Code § 34-6-2-69. As to the trial court’s instruction on incurred risk, which required the jury to assess fault to Burdick for voluntarily exposing herself to a specific danger of which she was aware, the Court of Appeals found no error, as Burdick, an admitted horse expert, was aware of Romano’s horse’s aggressive behavior and tendency to kick other horses.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in favor of Romano and against Burdick finding no error in the trial court’s jury instructions. You can read the full opinion here.

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