Merit Decision. The Court Defines “Spectator” Under Ohio’s Equine Immunity Statute. Smith v. Landfair.

Update: Read what happened on remand in this case here.

Ok, since the high court has now released its entire backlog of cases, I’ve got to start the blog somewhere.  Since I teach torts, I’ve never been able to resist the case of Smith v. Landfair, so I’ll start there.  On December 6, 2012, the Court handed down the merit decision in this case at 2012-Ohio-5692.  The case was argued July 10, 2012. By a vote of 6-1, in a decision written by Justice Lanzinger, the Court held that Landfair was immune from a tort lawsuit because Smith was a spectator at an equine activity.  Justice Pfeifer dissented.

Case Background

Donald Landfair boarded two of his horses, including Green Acre Annie (“Annie”) at Rochel Smith’s father’s stables. Smith was barn manager there. The extent to which Annie was trained was disputed.

One day Landfair took his horses elsewhere to be shod. He loaded them onto a trailer to do this.  That day Smith had dropped by to watch her father exercise another horse on the track.  When Landfair returned, Smith saw him having difficulty trying to get Annie out of the trailer.  Then an Amish wagon passed the trailer and spooked Annie. Smith saw Landfair on the ground, and the horse starting to step on him. She went over to help him, and in the process, she was kicked in the head by the horse. She sustained head and facial injuries. Smith sued Landfair for negligent handling of his horse. Landfair defended on the basis of the equine immunity statute.

R.C. 2305.321(A)(3) both provides an equine activity participant with immunity and bars an equine immunity participant, including spectators, from bringing a tort claim for injuries. Finding Smith to be a spectator at an equine activity, the trial court granted summary judgment to Landfair.

The Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Smith was not a spectator because she was not watching Landfair unload Annie from the trailer.  The appeals court concluded that to be a spectator, one must purposely watch the equine activity.

Read the oral argument preview of this case here and the analysis of the argument here.

R.C. 2305.321. Ohio’s Equine Immunity Statute

Ohio’s Equine Immunity Statute grants immunity from tort liability for equine activities. The statutory language defining equine activity is so broad that the Court concluded that almost every activity that involves a horse is an equine activity. Further, there is no tort liability for injuries sustained by an equine activity participant during an equine activity. The statutory definition of “equine activity participant” is also very broad, and includes “being a spectator at an equine activity.”

Issue

It was undisputed in this case that Landfair was engaged in an equine activity when he was un-trailering his horses. But was Smith an equine activity participant because she was a spectator when she was injured?  That was the issue before the high court.

Dueling Definitions of “Spectator”: Bystander or Intentional Watcher?

There is no definition of the word spectator in the Equine Immunity Statute.

Landfair argued that the trial court was correct in finding that Smith was a spectator because she was present when he was unloading Annie, and she saw what happened up to the time of her injury. Because Smith placed herself in a position to watch, see, or interact with an equine activity, she was subject to the equine immunity statute and could not bring a tort claim against him. Landfair also argued that his definition was consistent with the intent of the legislature.

Smith argued that the court of appeals was correct in narrowing the definition of spectator. A spectator is someone who intentionally places herself for the purpose of watching an event. She did not do that, and therefore, was not a spectator at an equine activity.

The Court’s Definition of Spectator

The Court accepted neither party’s definition of spectator. (My students always ask, can they do that?  Yes, they can. And did.) The Court found Landfair’s definition too broad. Being a mere bystander or passerby is not enough. And the Court found Smith’s definition too narrow. Intent to watch is not necessary.

Here’s the Court’s definition of spectator—“one who purposely places herself in a location where equine activities are occurring and who sees such an activity.”

In this case, this definition clearly favors Landfair.

“[T]he statute at issue in this case is broadly written to address the inherent risks that arise when horses are near people, and it is the injured person’s voluntary placement in a position of known exposure to that risk that is key. Merely glancing at a horse would not render someone a spectator of equine activity. Simply being in the vicinity of equine activities is not enough. Rather, the person must be there voluntarily, aware that equine activities are occurring,” Lanzinger wrote.

Application of the Definition to the Facts of the Case

Smith wasn’t at the stable that day because she was working. She voluntarily put herself in a spot where equine activities were taking place, saw Landfair try and unload Annie from the trailer, and was injured due to the inherent risk of that activity.

Applying its definition to the facts of this case, the Court found no genuine issues of material fact on the question of whether Smith was an equine activity participant, and found that the trial court had properly granted summary judgment to Landfair on this point. The court of appeals was reversed.

A Disclaimer

At oral argument just about every one of the justices asked some pretty shaggy horse hypotheticals, like if you are watching a parade with firetrucks, but a stray horse runs by and injures you, are you a spectator at an equine activity? (Justice O’Donnell). Or just watching horses at a 4th of July parade? (Justice O’Donnell.) What if you are just walking past a horse? (Justice Lanzinger) What if you go to the state fair only to take your kids on the rides, and you are not going near the horse barn, but on the way to the rides a Budweiser Clydesdale horse comes by out of control and injures you? (Justice Pfeifer). A runaway horse down Front Street? (Chief Justice O’Connor). Probably to speak to this apparent set of shared concerns, Justice Lanzinger wrote this in the opinion:

{¶ 31} “It is important to note, however, that not every person is a spectator when a horse is present. There is a measure of purposefulness needed to place oneself in the horse’s vicinity. And so a mail carrier delivering mail at a farm who is injured by a runaway horse is not a spectator. One must go to a place where equine activities are occurring before being deemed to be a spectator within the meaning of R.C. 2305.321(A)(3)(g). ”

Majority Conclusion

The Court upheld the grant of summary judgment to Landfair on the basis of immunity. But Smith had raised a number of other assignments of error that the court of appeals had considered moot in light of its ruling. The Supreme Court thus remanded the case back to the Ninth District to consider the remaining assignments of error which are detailed at ¶32 of the opinion, and also in footnote one.

Taking Justice Pfeifer to Task

In the majority opinion, Justice Lanzinger took Justice Pfeifer to the woodshed for finding that the Equine Immunity statute violated the open court and right to remedy provisions of the Ohio Constitution when no one raised a constitutional issue in this case.  “Declaring a statute unconstitutional, sua sponte, without notice to the parties would be unprecedented,” she wrote, noting that the Court declined to rule on a constitutional issue that wasn’t before it.

Justice Pfeifer’s Dissent

Justice Pfeifer just hates immunity for tort claims, no question about it. He would find that R.C. 2305.321 violates Article I Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution.  But he also disagreed with the majority definition of “spectator,” favoring the Court of Appeals definition.  “The upshot of this case is to encourage people encountering a dangerous situation involving a horse to watch, rather than attempt to help,” he wrote.

Case Syllabus

One who purposely places himself or herself in a location where equine activities are occurring and who sees such an activity is a “spectator” and hence an “equine activity participant” within the meaning of R.C. 2305.321(A)(3)(g).

Concluding Observations

At the time, it seemed that most of the justices were leaning toward immunity, which turned out to be the case. At argument, Justice Stratton led the charge on this point—she took a very broad view of what is intended to be covered under the immunity statute, sounding close to anything that involves horses. And Justice Pfeifer did go for a more narrow reading of “spectator” than the others. I thought the Court would get into the interesting question of the impact of the rescue doctrine in this case, but it left that to the court of appeals on remand.

Student Scholarship

For more on this topic, 3L Chris Tieke’s law review blog post, No More Horsing Around with the Ohio Revised , argues that the Supreme Court of Ohio has set a common approach to interpreting statutorily created torts and immunities, using this case as a focal point.

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