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Holcomb v. Long

Court of Appeals of Georgia

November 10, 2014

HOLCOMB
v.
LONG

Equine Activities Act. Gordon Superior Court. Before Judge Scott Smith.

Coppedge & Associates, Warren N. Coppedge, Jr., Daniel H. Laird III, for appellant.

Jenkins & Bowen, Frank E. Jenkins III, Robert L. Walker, for appellee.

DILLARD, Judge. Doyle, P. J., and Miller, J., concur.

OPINION

Page 688

Dillard, Judge.

Michael Holcomb filed a civil action against Charles Long d/b/a Charles Long Farms (" Long" ), alleging that Long's negligence in saddling one of the horses that he owned and a faulty saddle resulted in Holcomb falling from the horse and suffering serious injuries. Long moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Holcomb now appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in ruling that Long was entitled to civil immunity under Georgia's Injuries From Equine Or Llama Activities Act[1] (" Equine Activities Act" ) because none of the exceptions to immunity outlined in the statute applied. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant,[2] the record shows that Holcomb and Long were acquaintances through their membership in a local civic organization, and Holcomb had previously mentioned that he and his granddaughter were interested in riding the horses at Long's farm. Long extended an invitation to Holcomb and his granddaughter and, consequently, on April 7, 2011, they went to Long's farm to ride horses. Upon their arrival, Long inquired as to their riding experience, and Holcomb stated that he had ridden horses often as a young man (while his granddaughter [329 Ga.App. 516] had very little riding experience). Subsequently, Long first saddled a horse named " Elvis" for Holcomb's granddaughter and then saddled a very docile horse named " Tumbleweed" for Holcomb to ride. Next, he directed Holcomb and his granddaughter to first ride within the fenced corral so that he could assess their respective levels of competency.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, Long saw that Holcomb and his granddaughter could handle the horses rather well and, therefore, told them that they could ride out to the pasture and nearby trails, which they did. Holcomb and his granddaughter then rode for approximately one hour, during which time Holcomb did not notice anything wrong with Tumbleweed's saddle. But as they headed toward the trails, Holcomb turned backward to his left in the saddle to see if his granddaughter was immediately behind him. And as he did so, the horse flexed its body to its left, and the saddle began to slide to the right. The horse then began to gallop, but with the saddle continuing its slide to the right, Holcomb fell, struck his head on a fence post, and suffered serious injuries.

Thereafter, Holcomb filed suit against Long to recover damages for the injuries he suffered, alleging, inter alia, that the accident was the result of Long's failure to re-tighten the front girth, or cinch,[3] of the saddle,

Page 689

as well as his failure to utilize a cinch hobble[4] to secure the saddle. Long answered, and discovery ensued.

In deposition testimony, Holcomb's expert opined that the accident was a result of Long's failure to adequately tighten Tumbleweed's saddle. Specifically, Holcomb's expert testified that the front girth of the saddle should have been re-tightened after five or ten minutes of riding because it tends to loosen for various reasons as the saddle settles on the horse. However, he did not believe it was likely that the lack of a cinch hobble contributed to the accident. In his own deposition, Long agreed that a saddle will loosen as a horse walks or sweats and conceded that he did not re-check Tumbleweed's saddle at any point after Holcomb began riding.

Once discovery concluded, Long filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Equine Activities Act cloaked him with civil immunity and, therefore, barred Holcomb's lawsuit.[5] Holcomb [329 Ga.App. 517] responded, arguing that two of the statute's exceptions to its general grant of immunity applied, and thus, summary judgment was not warranted. Nevertheless, after holding a hearing on the matter, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Long. This appeal follows.

At the outset, we note that it is well established that summary judgment is proper " if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." [6] If summary judgment is granted by a trial court, it enjoys no presumption of correctness on appeal, " and an appellate court must satisfy itself de novo that the requirements of OCGA § 9-11-56 (c) have been met." [7] And in our de novo review of a trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment, we are charged with " viewing the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." [8] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Holcomb's specific claims of error.

1. Holcomb contends that the trial court erred in finding that the Equine Activities Act barred his lawsuit, arguing that Long was not entitled to immunity because he provided faulty tack or equipment. We disagree.

In interpreting any statute, we necessarily begin our analysis with familiar and binding canons of construction. Indeed, in considering the meaning of a statute, our charge as an appellate court is to " presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant." [9] And toward that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning,[10] consider the text contextually [329 Ga.App. 518] ,[11] read the text " in its most natural

Page 690

and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would," [12] and seek to " avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage." [13] In sum, where the language of a statute is plain and susceptible of only one natural and reasonable construction, " courts must construe the statute accordingly." [14]

With regard to the Equine Activities Act, the General Assembly left little doubt as to how it expected this statute to be construed. Indeed, the Act's preamble (OCGA § 4-12-1) explicitly provides:[15]

The General Assembly recognizes that persons who participate in equine activities ... may incur injuries as a result of the risks involved in such activities. The General Assembly also finds that the state and its citizens derive numerous economic and personal benefits from such activities. The General Assembly finds, determines, and declares that this chapter is necessary for the immediate preservation of the [329 Ga.App. 519] public peace, health, and safety. It is, therefore, the intent of the General Assembly to encourage equine activities ... by limiting the civil liability of those involved in such activities.

The General Assembly then established the limits of such civil liability in OCGA § 4-12-3 (a), which, in relevant part, provides:

Except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person ... shall not be liable for an injury to or the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities ... and, except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, no participant or participant's representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person for injury, loss, damage, or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine activities.

In the case sub judice, there is no dispute that the parties were engaged in " equine activities" as defined by the statute[16] or that

Page 691

Holcomb was a " participant" in such activities.[17] Nevertheless, while acknowledging the general applicability of OCGA § 4-12-3 (a), Holcomb argues that summary judgment was not warranted because Long provided faulty equipment or tack and, therefore, under OCGA § 4-12-3 (b) (1) (A), was not entitled to civil immunity.

The relevant part of OCGA § 4-12-3 (b) (1) (A) provides:

Nothing in subsection (a) of this Code section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, ... or person ... [p]rovided the equipment or tack, and knew or should have known that the equipment or tack was faulty, and such equipment or tack was faulty to the extent that it did cause the injury.[18]

[329 Ga.App. 520] And here, Holcomb specifically contends that Long's failure to re-tighten the front girth during the ride and Long's provision of a saddle that did not include a cinch hobble to connect the front and rear girths constituted providing " faulty tack" within the meaning of the statute, causing the saddle to slide off the horse he was riding. However, we do not agree that the term " faulty tack" can fairly be construed so broadly.

To begin with, Holcomb's own expert acknowledged that cinch hobbles are not always used and stated that he did not think it likely that the lack of a cinch hobble caused the accident in this instance. Thus, we find no support for Holcomb's argument that the lack of a cinch hobble in this case amounted to " faulty tack" under the statute.[19]

Furthermore, while the expert testified that Holcomb's fall was a result of Long's failure to re-tighten the front girth, he also stated that he observed nothing defective about the girth or saddle itself. Consequently, even assuming that Long's failure to re-tighten the front girth caused the accident, we are not persuaded that such inaction constitutes " faulty tack" within the meaning of the statute. Although we have found no Georgia case law defining " faulty tack," we decline to construe that exception as encompassing tack that is inadequately secured but otherwise in good working order.[20] Indeed, doing so would run afoul of the General Assembly's expressed desire of creating broad immunity for equine professionals engaging in equine activities with narrowly defined exceptions.[21]

Page 692

2. Holcomb also contends that the trial court erred in finding that the Equine Activities Act barred his lawsuit, arguing that Long was [329 Ga.App. 521] not entitled to immunity because he wantonly disregarded Holcomb's safety. Again, we disagree.

This additional exception to civil immunity, which Holcomb claims applies here, is found in OCGA § 4-12-3 (b) (3) and provides:

Nothing in subsection (a) of this Code section shall prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, ... or any other person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, ... or person ... [c]ommits an act or omission that constitutes willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant, and that act or omission caused the injury. ...

In Muller v. English,[22] this Court construed the Equine Activities Act for the first time. And with regard to the statute's use of the terms " willful" and " wanton," we held that

[w]ilful [misconduct] is based on an actual intention to do harm or inflict injury; wanton conduct is that which is so reckless or so charged with indifference to the consequences as to be the equivalent in spirit to actual intent. Wilful misconduct, or wilful failure or refusal to perform a duty required by statute, is more than negligence or even gross negligence; it involves conduct of a criminal or quasi-criminal nature, the intentional doing of something, either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with the wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.[23]

Here, as previously noted, the evidence shows that Holcomb fell from Tumbleweed as a result of the saddle's front girth loosening, rendering the saddle unstable. Additionally, Holcomb's expert testified that Long should have re-tightened the saddle during Holcomb's ride. And although Holcomb testified that Long admitted to him that he noticed the saddle beginning to loosen while Holcomb rode in the pasture, such evidence--at most--would establish Long's negligence or perhaps gross negligence. But negligence does " not show criminal or quasi-criminal conduct, recklessness, or indifference to the consequences so as to amount to evidence of willful or wanton disregard for [329 Ga.App. 522] the safety of the participant." [24] Accordingly, the trial court did not err in ruling that Long was entitled to civil immunity under OCGA § 4-12-3 (a).[25]

3. Holcomb further contends that the trial court erred in ruling that no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the lack of a cinch hobble proximately caused the accident. However, in light of our holding in Division 1, supra, this contention is a nonstarter.

As previously noted, OCGA § 4-12-3 (b) (1) (A) provides that nothing in OCGA § 4-12-3 (a) prevents or limits liability if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or person " [p]rovided the equipment or tack, and knew or should have known that the equipment or tack was faulty, and such equipment or tack was faulty to the extent that it did cause the injury." [26] While the last part of this subsection requires a showing of proximate cause, such a showing is predicated on first establishing that the tack in question was faulty. Given our holding that Holcomb failed to show that the lack of a cinch hobble constituted " faulty tack" within the meaning of the statute, we need not

Page 693

address this issue.[27]

Judgment affirmed.


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