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"California Courts Shy Away From Liability"
An article written by Barry A. Pollack on the topic of liability of truck owners, when their trucks frighten horses and cause personal injury

Where does the reputation of recreational riders and their mounts fall in today’s society? A recent court decision suggests a downward trend.

Darrell Parsons took his horse Poco for a morning ride on a public bridle path. On one side of the path was a chain link fence, which separated the trail from a local eatery. A trash truck owned by Crown Disposal Company, and operated by its employee Efren Ramirez, was at the back of the restaurant. Ramirez picked up a dumpster with the forks of the truck and, using the truck’s controls, he first “shook” the bin to settle its contents and then raised the bin over the truck body to spill the trash into the truck. Poco didn’t appreciate the loud noise, became frightened and did some dumping of his own. Parsons was tossed to the ground and suffered personal injuries for which he sought compensation from Crown.

Parsons claimed that Crown should pay up because its driver knew that the bridle path was nearby and that the noise would expose riders to a greater risk of harm than one would expect when going out for a ride on a dedicated trail. Crown countered that it did nothing out of the ordinary and that there was no evidence that Ramirez even saw Parsons or Poco until the rider was already on the ground.

The California Supreme Court sided with Crown and ruled that the company was “operating socially beneficial machinery [with its attendant sound] in a manner that is regular and necessary” and that the “delicate sensibilities” of horses must give way to the needs of modern society. The Court stated that “Well before Poco was spooked by defendant’s operation of its loud garbage truck with mechanical fork lifts, his equine ancestors were frightened by shrieking, grinding, and hissing steam locomotives, motorized streetcars, steam rollers, motorcars, and numerous other contraptions of the industrial revolution.”

So what’s the point? Given the Court’s reasoning, an injured rider has no right to be compensated for injuries caused by a frightened horse, when the scare is the product of ordinary and necessary activities (even when the noisy person knows that there are horses nearby). The rider bears the risk of harm when his mount bolts at the sight of items such as spools of cable and lengths of pipe or from the noise automatic hammers, drilling rigs, tree chippers and the like.

Since most of us are both potential scare-ers and riders of scare-ees, this is both good news and bad news. The good news is decreased liability for homeowners and businesses doing things that might result in scared horses and injured riders. The bad news is that if we as riders are hurt from an unexpected noise or sight that sends our horses into panic, we are not likely to be successful in a lawsuit.

In the bigger picture, this case is particularly interesting for what it says about how courts tend to see horses and “recreational riders.” The court in this case based its ruling, in part, on its view that horses are playing a declining role in today’s economy. Their status as useful commercial tools is waning and their legal protection is suffering. As mechanization increases and urbanization spreads, people become less familiar with, and less tolerant of, the needs of the equine community. My expectation is that the factual patterns which support liability will become increasingly limited.

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