Ohio high court rejects woman's horse injury claim

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- An Ohio woman severely injured when she went to the aid of a horse owner in danger of being trampled met the legal definition of a "spectator" at a horse-related event and thus cannot sue for damages, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

But the 6-1 ruling left open the possibility that Roshel Smith could sue over the incident if other factors can be proved, such as whether the behavior of the horse owner was "wanton."

Smith was on her day off in 2007 when she stopped by a horse stables at the Wayne County fairgrounds where she worked for her father, a horse trainer, according to court records. She was kicked in the face by a horse when she went to help the animal's owner who she noticed had been knocked down and was in danger of being trampled, records say.

An issue in her lawsuit is the legal definition in Ohio state law of "spectator" at a horse event, which is meant to limit lawsuits against the horse industry.

Smith argued that her presence at the horse barn is not covered by the state law. Donald Landfair, the horse's owner, said Smith met the definition of a spectator by her activities that day and should be prevented from suing. The horse, Annie, was an untrained 2-year-old, according to court documents.

The Supreme Court said people who purposely place themselves where horse activities are happening and who see such activities are legally considered spectators.

"In other words, horses are unpredictable," said Justice Judith Ann Lanziger. "Although Smith was not at the stable that day to work, she voluntarily placed herself in a location where equine activities were taking place, saw the attempted unloading of Annie from the trailer, and was injured due to the inherent risk of that activity."

Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented, saying Smith was not injured because of an "inherent risk" of being around horses but because she tried to help Landfair.

"Next time, she would be well served to sit back and watch a person get trampled," Pfeifer said. "The upshot of this case is to encourage people encountering a dangerous situation involving a horse to watch, rather than attempt to help."

As Smith waited for her father, Landfair pulled up in his horse trailer with two horses, according to court records. After unloading the first animal, he was trying to unload Annie, when an Amish horse-drawn wagon came down the road and spooked Annie with its loud noise, according to documents filed with the Supreme Court.

After Annie knocked Landfair to the ground and was in danger of trampling him, Smith noticed what was happening and rushed to help, records show. The horse kicked her in the left side of the face, knocking her unconscious and leaving her with about $50,000 in medical bills, including extensive dental work.

Smith's lawsuit alleged Landfair acted negligently by trying to handle the untrained horse and failing to get help when unloading Annie. Landfair argued the law in question contains a broad definition of "spectator" and Smith fit the definition.

A trial court agreed with Landfair, but a state appeals court overturned the decision and sided with Smith.

Thursday's Supreme Court decision overturned the state appeals court, but also said it should decide other issues still outstanding, such as whether "Landfair's conduct was wanton."

Smith's attorney, John Rinehardt, said he appreciated the court's efforts to clarify the law, but he differs on the distinction the court drew involving spectators.

The Ohio Horseman's Council sided with Landfair and said that if Smith's lawsuit prevails it could jeopardize the livelihood of thousands of Ohio horse owners, professionals and sponsors.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.