A beginner lost a claim for damages last month in the latest riding school case to reach court. The judge at Nottinghamshire County Court ruled that Woodside Riding School, Bestwood, was not to blame for their client’s fall from sitting trot when learning the transition to canter.
Yet despite the hard line increasingly taken by courts, and a well-reported 2012 ruling that people must accept riding has risks, the urge to sue remains unabated.
The blame culture was also discussed at the recent World Horse Welfare conference.
Former Defra minister Sir Jim Paice observed: “The problem is not health and safety but a type of litigation that has come out of the US – people are terrified that if someone fell off at their school riding without a saddle, they would sue. I wish more of our courts would say, ‘Don’t be so stupid, what happened to you is not worth millions.’”
Expert witness Charlie Lane has written 900-plus horse-related expert reports for 90 different legal firms since taking up expert work 25 years ago. He believes “riders are not having any more accidents than they ever did”. He also believes that for every single case reaching court, another 30 or 40 are probably pursued before being dropped or settled.
The big difference is encouragement to sue from the hundreds of claims-management companies offering no-win no-fee services.
One notable trend is the growth of relatively minor potential claims. “These can be soft-tissue injuries, even a bruised bottom that will mend in a matter of weeks,” said Mr Lane. “However, claims may grow beyond the costs of the injury.”
Barrister John Snell successfully defended the landmark case of Turnbull vs Warrener in 2012. This resulted from a rider sustaining injuries falling from a loaned horse who bolted when ridden for the first time in a bitless bridle.
Dismissing the claim against the owner, Lord Justice Lewison ruled: “On occasions, the horse will not respond to its rider’s instructions, or will respond in a way the rider did not intend. That is one of the risks inherent in riding horses. That is all that happened in the present case.”
It is not just unavoidable exposure to the inexperienced that puts riding schools in the firing line. Legislation underlined in the 2003 case of Mirvahedy vs Henley prompted even more claims against professional establishments. The House of Lords ruled that the Animals Act 1971 imposed strict liability (without the need to prove negligence) on the keeper of any animal with known dangerous characteristics or with “ordinary” behaviours that might cause harm.
But the Animals Act 1971 does not apply to owner-riders, who mostly rely on the negligence approach if, for instance, a farmer’s crow-scarer spooks their horse. A no-win, no-fee provider is less likely to help these cases and the rider will often drop the case.
A sympathetic response may be all that is needed to fend off a minor injuries claim.
“Quite often, people feel their complaint has not been taken seriously, which can be the trigger to consult a solicitor,” said Mr Lane.
Ref: H&H 28/01/2016