Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Court Revives Suit by Parents of Girl Thrown From Horse
Riding Coach May Have Increased Risk of Injury Through Gross Negligence, Causing Death, Panel Says
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday revived a negligence action by the parents of a 17-year old girl who was killed during an equestrian competition against their daughter’s riding coach.
Div. Two concluded Kristi Nunnink had failed to provide sufficient evidence to negate the alleged duty she owed Karan and Stan Eriksson not to increase the risk of harm inherent in cross-country jumping by allowing their daughter to enter a 2006 competition in Temecula with an injured horse.
The Erikssons alleged that Nunnink had been a professional trainer for 25 years, and worked with Mia Eriksson three times a week prior to Mia’s death. They asserted that Nunnink was “completely responsible for” a gelding they owned named “Kory,” who was Mia’s preferred mount for equestrian competitions, and required “to make sure the horse was fit and ready to go” before Mia competed in events.
Kory had fallen at two events in the fall of 2006, sustaining injuries of which Nunnink was allegedly aware, but the Erikssons said they allowed Mia to ride him at the Temecula competition based on Nunnink’s representation that Kory was “great” and Mia had been practicing with him “all week.”
Nunnink stated that she was “personally familiar” with Kory and his “tendencies, abilities, and capacity of responding to Mia[’s] commands” and she would “have said something” if she felt that Mia’s horse should not be competing. She said Mia had practiced with Kory the morning of her accident without any apparent difficulty and never complained of Kory’s behavior.
Kory balked before the 19th hurdle on the course, and tripped, causing Mia to be thrown. The horse then landed on Mia, who died of her injuries later that day.
The Erikssons later sued Nunnink for negligence and for the negligent infliction of emotional distress, alleging that Kory “was unfit to ride,” his condition was concealed from them, which increased the risk of harm to their daughter.
Nunnink answered the complaint and moved for summary judgment, which Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask granted, finding: “There was no showing of competent evidence fulfilling the requisite elements of duty, breach of duty, and legal causation on the part of [Nunnink], legally causing the subject incident…, and the action is barred by the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.”
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Jeffrey King disagreed, explaining that a coach has a duty of ordinary care not to increase the risk of injury to a student by encouraging or allowing the student to participate in the sport when he or she is physically unfit to participate or by allowing the student to use unsafe equipment or instruments.
He noted that the “the risk of falling off or being thrown by a horse during the competition, causing injury to the rider” was inherent in equestrian competitions such as the one Mia had entered, but posited these dangers served to “highlight the importance of having a healthy and fit horse” when engaging in this activity.
Based on the evidence proffered by the Erikssons that Nunnink’s role encompassed the authority and responsibility to determine whether Mia’s horse was fit for competition and that Nunnink had assured them Kory was capable of performing, King reasoned the Erikssons had demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of material fact.
Nunnink failed to negate the allegations that she exercised some measure of control over whether Mia and Kory would compete, King said. Although Nunnink’s separate statement of undisputed facts asserted that “[a]t no time before Mia Eriksson began her cross-country course run did anyone, including Mia Eriksson, ever complain that her horse was not behaving characteristically or in a manner that would suggest that Kory would present a danger to Mia Eriksson,” King reasoned this did not establish Kory’s fitness to be ridden.
“The distinction between ‘no one complained to her,’ and “I did not know nor should I have reasonably known,’ is significant,” King said, noting the Erikssons “could very well admit that no one complained to Nunnink about the fitness of the horse, yet Nunnink, based on her own expertise, could still have known or had reason to know that the horse was unfit.”
King added that Nunnink also posited no undisputed fact relative to the issue of causation and there was a triable issue as to whether Kory’s condition was a contributing factor to his failure to clear the 19th hurdle at the Temecula event.
Although the Erikssons had executed a release of liability in favor of Nunnink, King opined that “the disputed facts as to the unfitness of Kory in conjunction with disputed facts as to Nunnink’s knowledge and the representations she made to Karan, triable issues exist as to the presence of gross negligence,” which would place Nunnink’s conduct outside the scope of the release.
In the unpublished portion of his decision, King, joined by Justices Art W. McKinster and Douglas P. Miller, rejected Nunnink’s claim that an evidentiary ruling had the effect of striking virtually all of the Erikssons’ evidence opposing the summary judgment motion.
The case is Eriksson v. Nunnink, 11 S.O.S. 156.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company