Trainer Not Liable for Horse-Show Accident

In 2006, Karan and Stan Eriksson’s 17-year-old daughter Mia was competing in an equestrian event. Kristi Nunnink was Mia’s riding coach. The horse struck a hurdle during the cross-country portion of the event at Galway Downs in Temecula, CA. Mia fell off her horse and the horse then fell on Mia, killing her. The Erikssons sued Nunnink for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They alleged that Nunnink substantially increased the risk Mia reasonably assumed by allowing her to ride a horse that ‘was unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice” and concealing this condition from the Erikssons.
In an earlier appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed an order granting summary judgment for Nunnink. The case was then tried, and the court granted Nunnink’s motion for entry of judgment. The court relied, in part, on a release of liability entered into between Nunnink and Mia about six months prior to Mia’s death. The Erikssons appealed. They argued that the release of liability was ambiguous and did not apply to their claims and that, based on the evidence presented and the applicable law, the court erred in granting Nunnink’s motion for entry of judgment.
In the published Court of Appeal’s opinion, it held the release was enforceable and could be asserted by Nunnink as a defense to the Erikssons’ wrongful death and NIED claims and Nunnink can therefore be liable only if Mia’s death was caused by Nunnink’s gross negligence. In the unpublished portion, the Court concluded that the Erikssons failed to establish that Nunnink was grossly negligent. The Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s judgment.