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No Horseplay On The Part Of Defendant-Third Circuit Affirms Grant Of Defendant’s Motion For Summary Judgment

July 28, 2023

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In a recent opinion handed down by the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, for <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Garcia-v.-Mountain-Creek-Riding-Stable-Inc.pdf">Garcia v. Mountain Creek Riding Stable Inc.</a>,</em> a defendant stable owner, who provided horses and guides for trail rides, who had been sued by a plaintiff who was thrown from horseback while taking part in a trail ride, had its motion for summary judgment affirmed after the plaintiff appealed the district court’s grant. The court came to its decision by applying Pennsylvania law.

The evidence established that the plaintiff Garcia, who did not speak English, was asked to change into riding boots provided by the defendant Stable. <em>Garcia v. Mountain Creek Riding Stable Inc.</em>, No. 22-1700, 2023 WL 4418230, at *1 (3d Cir. July 10, 2023). While changing into the boots, the defendant Stable provided riding instructions to the patrons. <em>Id</em>. Although neither plaintiff Garcia, nor her husband, spoke English, Garcia’s son was translating for her on that day. <em>Id</em>. Garcia’s son, however, did not provide translation of the riding instructions because the plaintiff was busy with her boots and distracted. <em>Id</em>. Plaintiff Garcia provided testimony that she had been in a hurry because she was worried that she would be left behind. <em>Id</em>. The plaintiff’s husband, who had ridden a horse before instead gave Garcia brief instruction, rather than Garcia receiving translated instruction from the employees of the defendant Stable.

Further, during the period plaintiff Garcia changed into the boots, her husband signed the waiver on her behalf, which had been provided by the defendant Stable. <em>Id</em>. The waiver, as well as signage on the property “informed patrons that they “assume[d] full responsibility for...risks including, but not limited to, the negligence of” Mountain Creek.” <em>Id</em>. There had also been testimony that the senior trail guide that she was concerned about plaintiff Garcia’s “riding ability and safety, particularly because she did not speak English” however multiple witnesses stated that neither of the two trail guides rode behind plaintiff Garcia. <em>Id</em>. At some point during the ride, plaintiff Garcia’s horse went off trail, and although Garcia testified that at least once she tried to stop the horse by pulling on its reins, she was thrown from the horse after it reared up on its hind legs. <em>Id</em>.

Subsequently, plaintiff Garcia brought an action alleging that the defendant Stable had been negligent by failing to prevent the harm. Id. The defendant Stable then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Garcia had not provided “sufficient evidence showing that Mountain Creek failed to prevent the harm, as required under Pennsylvania law.”

In reaching its decision to affirm the lower court’s judgment, the Third Circuit applied Pennsylvania law, which “follows the Restatement (Second) of Torts, §§ 509 and 518, which identify the proof required to hold the possessor of a domesticated animal, such as a horse, liable for damages. <em>Id</em>. *2. Because there was no evidence showing that the horse had dangerous propensities, the court applied §518, rather than §509, which would apply in a circumstance when a domesticated animal is known to have dangerous propensities. <em>Id</em>.

Under §518, to establish liability when a plaintiff does not assert that the possessor of the animal caused the animal to do harm, the plaintiff must instead show that the possessor was “negligent in failing to prevent the harm.” <em>Id</em>. plaintiff Garcia alleged five ways in which the defendant Stable had been negligent: that the senior guide, despite the testimony of having been concerned for Garcia’s riding ability, allowed Garcia to ride the horse, that the guides on the trail did not notice that Garcia was incorrectly holding the saddle instead of the reins, that the guides did not tell Garcia to pull the reins instead of holding onto the saddle improperly, that Garcia did not receive instructions in Spanish, and that the guides were in front of Garcia on the trail and thus could not monitor her. <em>Id</em>.

The Third Circuit based its decision on the following conclusions: plaintiff Garcia acknowledged that the defendant Stable had provided instructions before the ride, and because Garcia’s son who had been her translator that day did not translate the instructions and instead Garcia’s husband gave her instruction, and because Garcia “demonstrated that she understood at least some of the instructions for controlling the horse as demonstrated by the fact that she knew to pull the reins back to stop the horse on at least one occasion.” <em>Id</em>. Further plaintiff Garcia “presented no evidence that Mountain Creek engaged in any conduct that caused the horse to begin running and presented no evidence that “the horse was unsafe for a novice rider or that the position of the guides would have impacted the horse’s behavior,” id., Thus the Third Circuit ruled that plaintiff Garcia had “not provided evidence upon which a reasonable juror could find” the defendant Stable to be negligent under Pennsylvania law. <em>Id</em>.

This ruling serves as a reminder of the basic requirement to support a motion for summary judgment in Pennsylvania, or to refute one on appeal. Simply put, a motion for summary judgment cannot have material facts in dispute which would require it to go before a jury. Absent those disputed material facts, a court a litigant runs the risk of receiving the same judgment as plaintiff Garcia.

Thanks to Ryan Hunsicker for his contribution to this article.  Should you have any questions, contact <a href="tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Tom Bracken</a>.

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