A recent case has been described as a "wake- up call" for horse owners across the UK.
In Harris v Miller, the claimant was a teenager who fell from a horse when she was 14 years old. Ashleigh Harris suffered a spinal cord injury and was left paralysed after falling from a thoroughbred racehorse owned by Rachel Miller who was the mother of Ms Harris' then boyfriend. Ashleigh Harris was riding the horse near Mrs Miller's home when she suffered catastrophic injuries which left the keen rider with no function in her legs. Ms Harris raised a court action against Mrs Miller for £3 million and the High Court in London ruled that she was entitled to damages on a full liability basis.
What the court said
On the day of the accident Ms Harris was "suddenly and unexpectedly unseated". However, the facts of what happened on the day of the accident were hotly disputed, both in terms of how the accident happened and also the behaviour and temperament of the horse.
It was accepted by the court that Mrs Miller had "encouraged" the teenager to ride the horse which was known to be a strong and wilful animal and, by doing so, Mrs Miller exposed the keen rider to the risk of injury.
It was accepted by the court that the teenager was a "competent novice" who had a lot of experience riding ponies but had never ridden a horse before. The judge said Mrs Miller had "limited knowledge" of Ms Harris's riding experience.
The judge stated that Mrs Miller had made a "serious error of judgment" in buying the "unsuitable horse" and "it should have been known to her (the horse was) difficult to manage, even for a competent novice rider".
Ruling in Ms Harris' favour, the court stated: "By positively encouraging Ashleigh to ride the horse and condoning, if not specifically instructing, a trot in an open field for the first time, Mrs Miller was exposing her to a risk of injury. It was reasonably foreseeable that the horse would be strong and difficult to control."
The operation of the law in this case
The court action was originally brought in negligence and under the Animals Act 1971; but since, on the particular facts of the case, Ms Harris could not have succeeded in the statutory claim under the Animals Act if she failed at the common law of negligence, only the negligence aspect was pursued at trial.
The judge stated that permitting Ms Harris to ride the horse was a breach of the duty of care that Mrs Miller owed to Ms Harris. The standard of care was to be assessed by reference to that of the ordinary and prudent horse owner.
The court held that an ordinary and reasonably prudent owner should have known that the horse was difficult to handle. By failing in her duty of care, it was reasonably foreseeable that an injury of some sort was foreseeable. Not forseeing serious injury as a consequence was immaterial.
The injuries suffered
Ms Harris broke her back and is now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. She is paralysed from the waist down and, as a result, will require a lifetime of care. Despite wearing body armour which is a padded, shock absorbent jacket designed to protect the spine in the case of collision, Ms Harris sustained significant spinal injuries. Ms Harris spent six months in a Spinal Injuries Unit where she received specialist rehabilitation.
Ms Harris continues to suffer ongoing health problems, including a compromised immune system. Ms Harris is an ambassador for the spinal cord charity Back Up after training to teach youngsters how to use their wheelchairs. In addition she won the Inspirational Achievement For Young People Award at the 2016 Spinal Injuries Association Awards.
The implications of this case for horse owners
horse owners do not have specialist horse insurance and rely instead on the third party liability insurance included in their household insurance policy. Mrs Miller relied on her household insurance policy although the sum awarded will be well in excess of the insurance cover and would leave her financially destitute.
The focus of this case was Mrs Miller's knowledge, actual and constructive, of both the horse and the rider. The court held that Mrs Miller had simply not made sufficient enquiry about the ability of Ms Harris.
Following this court ruling The British Horse Society was inundated with calls from horse owners concerned about insurance.
Horse owners should consider this case when allowing other people to ride their horses and the possible exposure to risk by allowing others to do so. This case sets a precedent in terms of duties of care owed to other riders and shows that it is vital that horse owners are adequately insured.
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