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When is an accident just an accident and when do you have grounds for a claim?

Last month HorseSolicitor settled a claim for a client who had sustained a spinal fracture during a lesson in an outdoor arena. The case sparked a great deal of debate on social media from other riders/yard owners that felt that the claim should not have succeeded.

The comments made it clear to us, as equine solicitors, that a great deal of confusion exists surrounding the difference between a genuine accident which occurs through no fault of anyone and where an accident happens because someone has exposed another person to an obvious risk of harm. This article will help to distinguish between the two by focusing on two recent cases the first already mentioned and a second where we were representing the Defendant.

The circumstances of the first accident were that our client was having a private riding lesson in an outdoor arena on a dry but windy day. She was riding her own horse which wasn’t spooky and had been at the yard for a year, so was very familiar with the schooling area.

Our client had jumped her horse over a show jumping fence and was approaching the next jump when without warning an unsecured Christmas tree, that been placed next to a jump stand for decorative purposes along with other decorations, blew down in the wind and fell towards our client and her horse. Our client’s horse lurched away from the tree and our client was thrown off resulting in a fracture to her spine.

A claim was rightly brought because this was clearly not an accident where no one was blameworthy. Our client had paid the yard for use of an outdoor arena with jumps set up. As the court would see it, she had a contract with them to provide a service in exchange for her money and therefore had right to expect that service to be carried out safely and with reasonable care.

In this case, she was entitled to assume that the jumps would be well constructed. If any decorative features were added then the school were under a duty to make sure they don’t cause a hazard to anyone using the jumps. It should have been obviously apparent to the yard owner that unsecured decorations could easily blow down on a windy day, in an outdoor arena, and that this could cause a horse to spook.

There is a chance that the directions might not have fallen down and the horse would not have spooked, but in failing to secure the decorations the yard owners had placed our client at a very real risk. This shouldn’t be confused with the reasonable level of risk that every rider agrees to as soon as they get on a horse, because while riding is inherently dangerous riders shouldn’t have to accept the added risk of someone else’s negligence. The Defendant’s lawyers clearly agreed with this assessment as the case settled shortly before trial with substantial damages being paid.

Predictably social media lit up with people commenting that it was health and safety gone mad and that next people will be trying to sue trees for branches that fall whilst out hacking. People also suggested that it is far too easy to be successful in a claim for injury following a riding accident. On the contrary, the courts in the UK have set a fairly high bar in equine claims. Most often, no one is at fault, and even when they are there is not enough evidence to establish fault to the level of certainty required by the court.

Ultimately, for a case to be successful, the Claimant has to prove, on the balance of probabilities that not only was the Defendant negligent, but that negligence caused the accident, which resulted in their loss for which they should get compensation. Each case turns on its own facts and it is therefore important to seek advice from a solicitor that specialises in horse accident claims when contemplating making bringing a claim or if you are in the position of having to defend one.

Unfortunately, from time to time, less scrupulous claimants do try to bring claims where they clearly shouldn’t. HorseSolicitor recently acted for a Defendant, Ms W, who was an owner of a livery yard, in a claim against her for over £75,000.00. Our client owned a livery yard which caters for 45 horses on a DIY basis. The Claimant was a 10 year old girl who stabled a pony, that she had on loan, at our client’s yard. On the day of the accident the Claimant took the pony off the yard without telling anyone and went on an unsupervised hack. She was unfortunately thrown off, sustaining two fractures to her thoracic spine which required surgery.

The Claimant submitted that in addition to providing livery services, it was implied that Ms W was also liable for supervising minors while they were on the yard. The Claimant’s case was that our client was at fault by failing to ensure that the Claimant was supervised whilst she was on the yard and that our client should have prevented the minor from leaving the yard with the pony. We submitted, on behalf of Ms W, that she couldn’t be at fault because she didn’t even know the children were at the yard and that anyway it was the yard’s policy that children under 16 should not have been on the yard without supervision from an adult. It was our client’s case that this was just a terrible accident, but not one where anyone was to blame, despite the severity of the Claimant’s injuries. The matter went to court and the judge dismissed the claim and awarded our client her legal costs of defending the case.

Despite sensationalist and often misreported stories in the media, the vast majority of the time the courts get these claims right. That said, each case turns on the specific details and there is a great deal of confusion, even amongst legal professionals, surrounding what gives rise to a viable horse riding accident claim. Equine law is a complex, niche area and it is vital that you seek advice from a specialist HorseSolicitor in the event that you have either been injured in an accident that you believe was not your fault or alternatively if you have had a claim brought against you.

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