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Court interprets Equine Activity Liability Act to protect owner from negligence

Trina Beattie was injured when a horse being saddled by its owner startled and lifted her off the ground as she grasped its halter.  She missed several months of work and has continuing long-term physical ramificiations from the injuries she suffered.  Beattie and two companions alleged she'd been invited to defendant's home to ride a partially-broke horse, while defendant argued Beattie had invited herself.  Before reaching the factual discrepancies, however, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Beattie's case, based on its interpretation of the Equine Activity LIability Act.

The Act, a piece of special-interest legislation adopted to protect stable owners and to "stem the exodus of public stable operators from the [equine] industry," grants certain protections to stable owners.   If you've never heard of this particular "exodus", you are not alone.  During the surfeit of "tort reform" that Michigan indulged in under Governor Engler, many industries learned to mimic the effective [but never- proved] allegations of liability-induced physician exodus.

Under the Act, injury victims may not sue for injuries "resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity," however, the Act provides several exceptions.  Among these are an exception for faulty equipment; an exception for cases where the stable owner hasn't made a "reasonable and prudent" effort to determine the abilities of the participant; an exception for failure to warn of dangerous conditions; and an exception for "negligent act[s] or omissions[s by the owner] that constitute...a proximate cause of the injury, death or damage."

The reviewing court essentially eliminated the latter exception from the statute, rather than harmonizing the overall language and purpose of a poorly drafted statute.  While nearly all of the special interest statutes adopted in contravention of the common law to protect a particular industry (skiing, rollerblading, etc.) recite some exception where liability for fault remains, the Court read this exception out of the Equine Liability Act in order to give the fullest possible effect to the primary goal of immunity for inherently dangerous activity. 

The Court in Beattie v. Mickalich chose to read the statute to apply the negligence exception only where the stable owner's negligence arose from conduct not inherent to equine activity; if the owner's negligence is "integral to the equine activity," the owner is immune even from his own clear fault.  So, is it better to have stables in the state, even if they are operated negligently, or would it be wiser public policy to reasonably regulate their conduct and to provide reasonable immunity protection?  We'll never know, if Beattie is the final word.

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