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Wake up call for horse owners across Britain

In a judgment which will make horse owners think twice before allowing family or friends to ride their horses, the court has awarded an 18-year-old girl £3m in compensation after her ex-boyfriend's mother encouraged her to ride a horse known to be difficult to handle.

Ashleigh Harris fell from the horse and broke her back leaving her confined to a wheelchair and in need of specialist care for the rest of her life.

In the case of Harris –v- Miller [2013] EWHC 2438 (QB) the Claimant was 14 years old when she fell off the Defendant’s thoroughbred   ex-racehorse and was subsequently paralysed from the waist down. She originally brought an action in both negligence and under the Animals Act 1971.  However, on the facts of the case the Claimant could not have succeeded in the statutory claim if she failed at common law, and so she only pursued the negligence claim.

The facts of the case were hotly disputed by the parties. The Claimant maintained that the Defendant’s horse bucked whilst cantering on flat ground, throwing her off the saddle and over the horse’s head.  The Defendant on the other hand said that her horse was blameless and had dipped its head when going downhill at walking pace – causing the Claimant to tumble off the horse. The behaviour and temperament of the horse were also in issue at trial.

The Claimant argued that if the court accepted her version of events, it must follow that a fall was reasonably foreseeable on the basis of the horse’s behaviour. The Defendant, however, contended that this was insufficient and the court should also assess breach of duty in the context of the Defendant’s knowledge of the horse and the Claimant’s riding experience. The Defendant contended that the decision to permit the Claimant to ride her horse was reasonable in all the circumstances, especially in light of the Claimant’s stated experience and prior interactions with the horse.

The judge trying the case, HHJ Graham Wood QC (sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge), preferred the Claimant’s evidence to that of the Defendant, remarking that she was “an impressive witness”. In contrast, the judge considered that the Defendant had “allowed herself to develop misinformed recollections based on perception rather than actual fact.”

The judge accepted that he must consider the Defendant’s actual and constructive knowledge of both the horse and the rider. Nonetheless, he held that permitting the Claimant to ride the horse was a breach of the Defendant’s duty of care - an ordinary and reasonably prudent horse owner would ensure that he or she possessed sufficient knowledge of the horse and the intended rider in order to assess the risk involved in what is an inherently dangerous activity.

The judge went on to say that the Defendant knew that the Claimant was a 14 year old with limited riding experience and had not enquired whether the Claimant had ridden a horse before, let alone a thoroughbred. This amounted to a serious error of judgment because the Defendant should have known that the horse was difficult to handle, even for a competent novice such as the Claimant.

Consequently, the Defendant exposed the Claimant to an unnecessary risk of injury, in circumstances where it was reasonably foreseeable that the horse would be strong and difficult to control, and was likely to unseat a rider of the Claimant’s competence and an injury of some sort was foreseeable. Not foreseeing serious injury as a consequence was immaterial.

At a separate assessment of damages hearing the court awarded the Claimant the sum of £3m in damages.

The Claimant had, in fact, made an offer to settle her claim out of court for the maximum amount that the insurance company would pay under the terms of their personal liability cover, which was less than £3m.  The Defendant rejected that offer, and she will now have to meet part of the award of damages from her own pocket.

In the wake of the case the British Horse Society has advised horse owners that, if they lend their horse to other riders, they should ensure that the proposed rider is competent.  They should also ensure that they have the right insurance to protect both themselves and the rider.

David Ellis
Solicitor, Dispute Resolution

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