Very New Horse Bite Injury Case in FL

On July 13, 2016, the Third District Court of Appeal  decided Germer v. The Churchill Downs Management, Etc., et al, a Florida horse bite  case. The Plaintiff Garner, lost in the trial court against the Defendants, Pinecrest Stables, Inc., Parsons Pinecrest Farm, Inc., Santa Cruz Ranch, Inc., and Juan Pedro Rizo Patron.

The Plaintiff, a formerly licensed jockey, decided to visit the Santa Cruz Ranch to see a friend’s horse. The stables required a guest pass for those visitors who did not have a jockey license. While the Plaintiff was on his way to see the friend’s horse, another horse ironically named Forever Happy jumped out of its stall and bit the Plaintiff. He filed suit against the stables and Forever Happy’s owners, arguing the Defendants were negligent in allowing the horse to bite the Plaintiff.

The Defendants responded with the position that  773.02, Florida Statutes, immunized the Defendants from liability because Plaintiff was  a “participant engaged in an equine activity” and therefore the statute barred him from damages.

The appeals court looked first at the language of Section 773.02, Florida  Statutes, focusing on whether the Plaintiff was “visiting an equine facility as part of an organized event or activity.” If yes, then per the statute, the Defendants would be immune from the Plaintiff’s claims. The Plaintiff argued that he was not engaged in an “organized” event since he had spontaneously decided to visit the friend’s horse.

The court found there was no definition of an “organized” event in the statute. Therefore the court looked to the legislative intent of the law, finding the statute’s general intent is to limit the liability of equine facilities in Florida. With the intent in mind, the court found that by requiring a visitor’s pass to gain access to the facility, “the creation and existence of such protocol constituted the requisite ‘organization’ so as to make Garner’s visit to the stables ‘an organized activity’ as defined in section 773.01(1) of the Florida Statutes.” Therefore, the appeals court agreed with the trial’s court decision in favor of the Defendants.

What is the takeaway from this decision? Well, it appears that the Court will loosely interpret the language of the equine liability statute in Florida so as to favor liability protection. The legislature specifically excluded from the statute those spectators who are in an authorized area, meaning that  those spectators who were injured while in an authorized area could still seek damages. To the court, since the legislature taken the time to carve out a specific exception, then the legislature likely intended all other activities to be covered under the immunity statute. It is important to note too, that the Defendants had the required signage posted as well.

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