Unruly Horse Renders Stable Owner Immune from Liability for its Unruly Dog

Prior to the twentieth century, the old adage- “every dog gets one free bite” was in effect in most jurisdictions. In other words, a dog owner was only held liable for his dog's biting someone if the owner had reason to know the dog would bite.

In Ohio, as of the date of this article, Ohio’s law governing unruly dog behavior is the opposite of the old “one free bite rule.” Pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section. 955.28, to prove a statutory cause of action for injuries caused by another person’s dog, the plaintiff need only prove: (1) ownership or keepership [or harborship] of the dog; (2) that the dog’s actions were the proximate cause of the injury; and (3) damages. This is what is known as a “strict liability statute.

What if the unruly dog’s behavior does not directly result in harm, but causes a horse to be unruly, which then results in injury to a person? In a strange but true “premises liability”action, that very question was before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Judicial District (Lorain County) in the case of Graham v. Shamrock Stables, 2014-Ohio-3977.

The facts of this case are simple enough; it is the law that is a bit unusual.  In October, 2011, Lethea Graham went to Shamrock Stables to look at a miniature horse for possible adoption. As she was walking  the horse back to its stall (according to Graham), a large dog  began barking and jumping at the horse’s back legs which “spooked” the horse and knocked Graham to the ground, causing serious injuries to two of  Graham’s fingers. Afterwards, Graham and her husband sued Shamrock Stables for the injuries Graham sustained as a proximate result of the dog Shamrock Stables harbored on its property.

Graham claimed Shamrock Stables was liable based upon the “unruly dog statute”, Ohio Revised Code Section. 955.28. Shamrock Stables asserted that the “unruly dog statute” did not apply, because Graham’s injury was the result of equine (horse) activity, and therefore, the “equine immunity statute” applied.

Ohio’s equine immunity statute, R.C. 2305.321, provides immunity from liability for harm sustained by an equine-activity participant allegedly resulting from the inherent risk of equine activities. As explained by a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision: 1) “the phrase ‘equine activity participant’ is broad enough that it encompasses a person controlling in any manner an equine, whether the equine is mounted or unmounted;” and 2) “almost every activity associated with a horse is an equine activity.”  The reason for such a statute, according to the Ohio Supreme Court is that horses are unpredictable, and there are inherent risks that arise when horses are near people.

The trial court agreed with Shamrock Stables, that the equine immunity statute applied, and Graham appealed. The Ninth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

To reach its conclusion, the court of appeals in Graham first acknowledged that the issue at hand was deciding, which statute applied-the unruly dog statute, or the equine immunity statute. The court then found its answer in the plain language of the horse immunity statute. The court explained that “one of the inherent risks of an equine activity specifically listed in the statute was the unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to other animals”, and “since the General Assembly did not exempt dogs from the foregoing provision”, the horse’s reaction to the defendant’s dog would qualify as an inherent risk of equine activity, thus triggering the immunity.

The one dissenting judge in Graham asked a very good question in its dissent. “Why should the owner of both the horse and the dog (Shamrock Stables) escape strict liability arising out of the act of the dog, merely because the dog caused injuries via the horse?” The dissenting judge theorized that at issue was a general immunity statute (“horse immunity statute”) and a special provision specifically imposing strict liability on dog owners (the “unruly dog statute”), and that according to precedent, when two statutes, one general, one special cover the same subject matter, the special provision should be construed as an exception to the general statute which might otherwise apply. In spite of a well-reasoned dissent, however, two (judges) against one (judge), always wins.

So what is the moral of this story?  Simply, (in the words of my 10 year old nephew) “Horses rule, dogs drool.” In other words, even if a dog (or other animal) causes a horse to injure its rider (or other participant in an equine activity) the dog’s owner, and horse’s owner are immune from liability, at least when the owner of the dog and the horse are the same person. The dissenting judge’s theory that there would be no issue if a neighbor’s dog had run onto the property and startled the defendant’s horse, injuring Mrs. Graham seems to make a lot of - horse sense.

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