On July 18, 2013, the Austin Court of Appeals issued a memorandum opinion affirming in part a trial court judgment which held that a stable employees’ smoking while working in the barn was a material breach of the boarding agreement, allowing several boarders to move out without notice.

After a boarder saw and photographed a stable employee smoking while working in the barn, several boarders removed their horses from the stable. They did not give 30 days notice before leaving, and did not pay for the month after removing their horses as prescribed by their boarding contract with the stable.

The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the employee’s smoking in the barn was a material breach of the agreement that excused the boarders from further compliance with the boarding contract. In its materiality analysis, the court pointed out that the stable owner agreed when testifying that her “sole job in taking in other’s animals for boarding is to give those animals a safe place to live,” and agreed that “fire is a danger to the care and safety of horses.” Further, the stable’s barn rules, which were incorporated into the boarding contract by reference, included the statement, “No smoking in the barns”.  The smoking ban was included in a rule entitled “Safety”. The court found that this general prohibition banned everyone in the barn from smoking, not just the horse owners.

The court reversed and remanded the remainder of the suit, which had to do with the stable owner’s riding instructor agreement with Amber Ross. Ross had given riding lessons at the stables for the boarders involved in the suit who had left the barn with their horses. Ross’s lessons were covered by a written riding instructor agreement that required Ross to pay a fee when she taught a lesson at the stables. Ross did not pay the stable owner any fees for lessons conducted during March 2009, though there was evidence that Ross gave lessons during that month. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision that Ross did not breach the riding instructor agreement, and remanded that portion of the case to the trial court to determine the amount of fees Ross owed to the stable owner.

Take Aways:  Owners of boarding stables should take care to ensure that all stable employees, as well as friends and guests of the stable ower, comply with all written rules and regulations prescribed by the stable.  If a stable employee or a guest or friend of the stable owner violates barn rules, boarders may be legally entitled to terminate their boarding contracts immediately under certain circumstances.  This may be true even if the stable’s rules do not mention whether or not the stable owners are subject to the rules.

Case InformationRamaker v. Abbe, 2013 WL 3791491 (Tex. App.—Austin, Jul. 18, 2013)(mem. op.)

As we discussed in this prior post, the Supreme Court of Texas has not yet addressed the issue of whether Chapter 87 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code (the “Act”) shields defendants from liability in suits where employees or independent contractors are injured while engaging in an equine activities. Up until last week, we only had two opinions—both from intermediate appellate courts—addressing this issue. 

In the first case—Johnson v. Smith (Corpus Christi 2002)—the court held that independent contractors were participants under the Act, and therefore the Act shielded defendants in suits brought by independent contractors from liability. In the second case—Dodge v. Durdin (Houston [1st] 2005)—the court held that employees are not participants under the Act, and therefore defendants in suits brought by employees are not immune from liability.

As of last Thursday, we now have a third appellate case that sheds light on this issue. The Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston recently held that the Act immunizes defendants from liability for claims brought by independent contractors.

The case, styled Young v. McKim, represents the first equine employee negligence suit addressed by a Texas court of appeals since Loftin v. Lee was handed down by the Texas Supreme Court in April of 2011. 

Case Background: Brenda Young had posted a flyer at Ravensway Stables advertising her ability to assist owners in the care of their horses. Tisa McKim and her daughter, Jackie, hired Young to care for their horses—Jasper and Butch—at Ravensway. 

About two months after Young started caring for Jasper (a rescue horse), Jasper kicked Young and injured her. The injury occurred while Young was talking to another boarder at Ravensway while Jasper grazed beside her.

Young sued the McKims for negligence, and the McKims moved for summary judgment under the version of the Act in existence in 2010 (i.e. before the Act was amended in 2011). The trial court granted the McKims’ motion for summary judgment. 

The Appeal: The Fourteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the McKims. On appeal, Young alleged that the Act did not shield the McKims from liability.  Among the reasons Young gave were 1) only “tourists and other consumers of equine activities” qualify as participants under the Act; and 2) Young was an employee of the McKims, not an independent contractor.  Young relied heavily on the First Court of Appeals’ opinion in Dodge on appeal.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals determined that Young was an independent contractor, not an employee.  The court did not reach the issue of whether the Act would have applied had Young been an employee. The Fourteenth Court disagreed with the discussion in Dodge suggesting that the Act only applied to “tourists and other consumers of equine activities.”

Citing Loftin, the Fourteenth Court held,

“The Equine Act is a comprehensive limitation of liability for equine activities of all kinds…The Equine Act applies to all ‘participants’”. [Emphasis supplied].

It remains to be seen whether Young will be appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas. Given the Supreme Court’s expansive view of the Act set forth in Loftin, the Supreme Court might disagree with Dodge’s holding that the Act does not apply to employees.

Case Information:  Young v. McKim, No. 14-11-00376-CV, 2012 WL 1951099 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th] May 31, 2012, no pet h.).

Related Posts:

Are Employers Immune from Liability for Employees’ Horse-Related Injuries in Texas?

Victory for Horse Industry in Texas Supreme Court

Does Your Farm Need to Purchase Worker’s Compensation Insurance?

Time to Get New Warning Signs: Equine Activity Act Amended in 2011