Last week, a judge in California issued a summary judgment in favor of eventing trainer Kristi Nunnink in a lawsuit brought against her by Karan Eriksson, following the death of her daughter, Mia, in November 2006. Mrs. Eriksson charged Nunnink with recklessness and negligence after Mia fell on the cross-country course and died at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event.
Mrs. Eriksson also filed lawsuits against the event, the course designer and other officials, and the USEF and USEA after the fall, but the court had previously found no responsibility on their part and had dismissed these suits in a similar summary judgment.
I hope this decision brings closure to everyone in this extremely sad and difficult experience.
Here are a few paragraphs from the judge?s decision [http ://www.ratemyhorsepro.com/equine-court/civil-matters/karan-eriksson-et-al-plaintiffs-vs-del-mar-eventing-inc-et-al-defendants.aspx]:
?Equestrian competition, especially involving participation by riders experienced with their horses of choice and such competition courses, is a vigorous sports event. There is no evidence that KRISTI NUNNINK evinced even simple negligence, much less the ?recklessness? or ?direct, willful and wanton negligence? that the Court of Appeal determined would have to be shown to take this case out of the ambit of the primary and express assumption of the risk doctrines, both of which operate to negate the duty element in negligence and bar lawsuits like this.
?Decedent [Mia Eriksson] exercised her own judgment in jumping course fences that she fully viewed beforehand, primarily assuming the risk of that vigorous and dangerous sport, especially after she was eliminated and required to exit the course. Decedent?s mother, on behalf of the minor decedent, expressly waived any right to recover for any accident, such as the instant one, expressly assuming the risks thereof.?
?The conditions that plaintiffs [Erikssons] blame for decedent?s death were as open and obvious as they could be, especially to an experienced competitive rider, and decedent actually walked that same course, and warmed up on the same horse, before the competition. NUNNINK was merely the trainer, not the event sponsor, installer, supervisor, qualifier, inspector, designer, or maintainer, and so had no duty regarding the course conditions. There is and can be no evidence that KRISTI NUNNINK breached some duty regarding her training of the decedent, legally causing decedent?s demise.?
This, I think, is an important legal opinion for eventing and, really, for all horse sports. It affirms the importance of personal responsibility when training and competing horses.
The judge notes that any type of riding is a risk sport, but especially eventing because of the challenges of the cross-country phase, and his words are a reminder that we must be as fully prepared was we can be for competition at any level. As riders and owners, we must fully accept our responsibility to our horses, to our sport and to ourselves and our families. We must do everything we can to prepare ourselves and our horses for the challenges presented to us by the competition, especially on cross-country.
The judge also noted that Mia continued on course after she?d had the maximum number of four refusals, ignoring the FEI and USEF rule eliminating her from competition. Knowing and accepting the sport?s rules is a matter of personal responsibility.
What does this decision mean to trainers’
For one thing, I think it demonstrates the importance of signing?or not signing?the entry form. To me it affirms that we trainers must carefully consider whether a horse is in our care, custody and control. Mia?s horse, Choreography, was not in Kristi?s barn; he was kept at the Eriksson?s training stable several miles away. While Kristi gave me lessons, she did not oversee his daily care, exercise or training, and so she did not sign the entry form. Her mother, Karan Eriksson, did, and the judge found this a key point, especially since Mia was a minor. He considered Karan Eriksson?s signature as primary evidence of parental consent for her to be competing in that event.
When I lived in Virginia and competed as an amateur, before we moved to California to establish our training stable, I trained with advanced rider Sharon White, shipping my horse to her farm weekly or twice weekly for lessons. ?So I signed my entry forms as trainer, because my horse or horses were not in her care or control. I fed, medicated and exercised the horses, and if something bad happened (for instance, a fall or perhaps a positive drug test) I didn’t want her to be held responsible, because I was.
This case, and others, is why the USEA entry form has signature lines for ?trainer? and for ?coach,? a coach being a person from whom the rider takes instruction but is not responsible for the horse.
Today, at our Phoenix Farm, we do not sign entry forms as the trainers of horses who are not in our barn?because we are not fully responsible for their preparation. So far, it’s never been an issue, and after this judgment it’s a practice we will vigilantly continue.
The judge also found for the limits of a trainer as one person. He noted that Kristi is not a veterinarian, was not the course designer, and that she had other training and riding commitments at the event. She could not magically leap up and stop Mia on course, nor did she have a responsibility to do so. That responsibility rests with the rider.
To me, the most important message in this opinion is that we are responsible for ourselves whenever we compete. It says that, while we certainly should seek the direction and advice of trainers and coaches, and that event organizers and officials should never relax their incredible diligence to our and our horses? safety, the assumption of risk ultimately falls upon our shoulders, as riders and as horseman.