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Larson v. XYZ Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 3, 2017



          HUGHES, J. [1]

         We granted the writ application in this case to review the applicability of La. R.S. 9:2795.3, the Equine Immunity Statute. The trial court granted a motion for summary judgment filed by Equest Farm, LLC, finding that the immunity statute applied because plaintiff Danielle Larson was a participant engaged in equine activity at the time the Equest Farm pony bit her. The court of appeal reversed, holding that Larson was not a "participant" under the immunity statute, and that summary judgment was inappropriate because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether another provision in the immunity statute might apply. We hold that there are genuine issues of material fact on the issue of whether the immunity statute applies. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeal and remand to the trial court.


         This suit concerns a horse bite injury sustained in 2013 by Danielle Larson, who visited Equest Farm for the purpose of visiting and feeding horses owned by that facility. Equest Farm is located in City Park in New Orleans, and it boards horses as well as offers camps, lessons, field trips, and birthday parties with horses.

         Larson, an Illinois resident, frequently came to the New Orleans area to visit her boyfriend. Larson testified that she has never owned a horse but that she had been riding horses since childhood and she rode horses at a stable in Illinois. Larson testified that she had previously been shown how to feed a horse: with a flat hand, fingers together so that they are angled down and not sticking up. Larson testified that in the past she had fed horses common treats such as carrots, apples, and sugar cubes.

         Larson testified in her deposition that she had been visiting Equest Farm since 2011 or 2012 to "talk to them" and "give them love and affection." Larson testified that prior to the incident she had visited Equest Farm at least six times and that she tried to go every time she visited New Orleans. Larson testified that each time she went to Equest Farm for a visit she would first check in with someone from the equestrian center front office before heading into the stables. Larson testified that during a previous visit, a man who appeared to work for Equest Farm gave her mints to feed the horses. Approximately five days before the date of the accident, Larson dropped by Equest Farm to ask if in the coming days she could visit with the school horses, which are horses owned by facility used for lessons. She also wanted to return with treats and was seeking advice on what the horses liked. Larson said she spoke with someone who worked in the office, named Kaley or Kiley, who told her she could return with certain treats, including carrots, and feed and visit with the school horses.

         When Larson returned with carrots on Monday, September 23, 2013, the Equest Farm office was closed in accordance with its regular schedule, and Larson proceeded to the stalls where the school horses were kept. On her way, she encountered two riders who boarded horses at Equest Farm, Joanna Deal and Susan Gegenheimer. Larson told them that she was going to feed the school horses carrots. Ms. Deal and Ms. Gegenheimer told Larson to be careful because they heard one of the school ponies had bitten a child.

         As Larson was visiting with the school horses, she arrived at a stall where a pony, Wesley, was standing at the gate. Larson placed a carrot in her hand and held it out, but the carrot was knocked from her hand by the horse, causing the carrot to fall to the ground. As Larson squatted down to pick up the carrot, Wesley also reached for the carrot. Instead of biting the carrot, however, Wesley bit off Larson's thumb.

         Larson required substantial medical care. Doctors attached her injured hand to her groin for four weeks to keep what remained of her hand viable. Larson will have to be fitted for a prosthetic thumb or transfer a toe to her hand.

         There is a dispute about the signage that was posted on the day of the incident. Larson testified that she did not see any signs at Equest Farm prohibiting visitors from feeding the horses. Ms. Deal also testified that on the day of the accident she did not recall any such signs, but that she did not go into the school horse barn often. Ms. Gegenheimer also testified that at the time of the accident she was not aware of any rules that would prevent visitors from feeding the horses. Ms. Gegenheimer further testified that she did not see any signage specifically warning others about a prior nipping incident involving Wesley. Equest Farm LLC, member Leslie Kramer averred by affidavit that there have been signs posted since 2011 that feeding treats or petting horses is not allowed. She averred that the signs stated visitors could "look but not touch" the horses.

         As for Wesley, he appears to have a good reputation at Equest Farm, although it is not without blemish. Ms. Deal testified that she saw small children ride on Wesley. Ms. Gegenheimer testified he was a "great lesson horse." Ms. Kramer averred that Wesley "is considered to be one of Equest Farm's best school ponies." Ms. Kramer also averred that the only other time Wesley has bitten anyone was when a child who had been riding him was holding his ears and muzzle trying to get him to kiss her. Wesley nipped her and bruised her cheek, however, the student continued to take lessons riding Wesley, and no lawsuit was filed.

         Procedural History

         Larson filed a Petition for Damages alleging that Equest Farm and its insurer were liable for her injuries under theories of negligence and strict liability. Equest Farm filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which argued that Larson's suit should be dismissed due to the applicability of the Equine Immunity Statute, La. R.S. 9:2795.3. Equest Farm asserted that Larson was a "participant" who was injured as a result of inherent risks of equine ...

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