Oral Argument Preview: What is a Spectator Under Ohio’s Equine Immunity Statute? Smith v. Landfair.

Update: The Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case December 6, 2012. Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On July 10, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of Smith v. Landfair, 2011-1708. At issue is the interpretation of R.C. 2305.321, the Ohio Equine Immunity statute, which grants immunity for certain equine-related activities. Under this statute, there is no tort liability for an equine activity sponsor, participant, or professional, among others, for injuries sustained by an equine activity participant during an equine activity and that results from an inherent risk of an equine activity. (Just in case you are wondering, “equine” means a horse, pony, mule, donkey, hinny, zebra, zebra hybrid, or alpaca. Ok, I confess to being very citified. I had to google hinny. It’s the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey)

Roshel Smith was employed as barn manager at her father’s horse stable, located on the Wayne County fairgrounds. Donald Landfair boarded two of his horses there, including Green Acre Annie (“Annie”). He had brought his horses there to be trained for harness racing. The extent to which Annie was trained was disputed.

On March 28, 2007, Landfair took Annie to another farm and to be shod. He loaded and unloaded her without incident. As Landfair was unloading Annie back at the Smith stable, she became spooked by an Amish horse-drawn wagon. Annie subsequently knocked Landfair to the ground. Smith heard the commotion and ran to help Landfair. In the process, she was kicked by the horse and sustained severe injuries to her face and jaw. 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) subjects an equine activity participant, including spectators, to the immunity statute. 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 the trial court, holding that immunity did not apply because Smith was not an “equine activity participant” under the statute, because she was not a spectator. The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted jurisdiction on the proposition which states that a person is a spectator – and thus an equine activity participant – under R.C. 2305.321(A)(3) if that individual is a bystander or observer at an equine activity. The key issue in this case is the definition of the word “spectator.”

Landfair argues that Smith was a spectator under the Ohio equine-immunity statute. While the statute does not specifically define spectator, the term has and should be construed broadly. Since the statute includes a spectator at an equine event as an equine activity participant, and broadly defines equine activity to encompass activities such as trailering or unloading a horse, Landfair argues he is immune from tort liability for Smith’s injury.

Landfair agrees with the Ninth District’s determination in this case that a spectator is more than someone who just sits in the stands and watches a horse show. But Landfair argues that the appeals court incorrectly drew a distinction between watching an event and seeing it only out of peripheral vision. He posits that whether one is a “spectator” under the statute cannot be tied solely to the direction the person happens to be facing at the precise moment of an incident. Smith voluntarily placed herself in close proximity to horses where she could interact and watch the events of the stable unfold. Furthermore, she could describe in detail the events that transpired after Annie was spooked and voluntarily approached Annie and Landfair. Thus Smith was an observer, watcher, or bystander of what happened and is clearly covered under the statute.

Smith argues that the term spectator is not synonymous with bystander. Since spectator is not defined in the statute, it should be accorded its everyday, common meaning. Just being present and seeing a horse being taken from a trailer does not make a person a spectator. Being a spectator connotes willing involvement, while a bystander may just happen to be somewhere, and may not even be looking. Additionally, Smith argues that to adopt Landfair’s position would be to provide immunity for all victims of the inherent risk of equine activities. Within the context of the statute, a spectator is an individual who physically places herself at an equine activity for the purpose of perceiving that equine activity. Since Smith did not physically place herself with the purpose of watching Landfair unload Annie, she argues that she cannot be deemed a spectator.

The Ohio Horseman’s Council filed an amicus brief in support of Landfair. The Council argues that the Court should adopt the plain meaning of spectator which should include anyone viewing an equine activity, including the unloading of a horse. Since Smith witnessed Landfair unload Annie, she qualifies as a spectator under the statute. In determining that Smith was not a spectator because she only saw Landfair unloading Annie through her peripheral vision, the Ninth District impermissibly narrowed the protection of the statute . The Council will share oral argument with Landfair.

The Ohio Association for Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of Smith, supporting her position that spectator does not mean bystander. Rather, a spectator is one who physically places herself with the purpose of perceiving the equine activity. Because Smith did not physically place herself with the purpose of watching Landfair unload Annie, she was not a spectator under the statute.

Student Contributor: Katlin Rust