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Jill Headford

Posted 18 December 2013
by Jill Headford

Grooms and accidents – a new twist

Q: What kind of groom is deemed to accept risk of injury?  A: a self-employed one  

The courts deal with a steady trickle of claims by unfortunate riders who have been injured riding someone else’s horse and have sued for compensation.  On the whole, Judges have been tending to the view that horses are inherently dangerous to be around (or on) and that if you get hurt – well, should have stuck to basket weaving.

The Animals Act 1971 says that if you get hurt by a horse, its “keeper” (which includes its owner even if the horse is at livery) is liable if …

a)  the injury is of a kind which the horse was likely to cause or which, if it did cause it, was likely to be severe and

b)  this was due to some characteristic of the horse not normally found in horses or not normally found in horses except at particular times or in particular circumstances and

c)   the characteristic was known to the keeper or his employee or family.

Since injury from being kicked, thrown, bitten, crushed, etc, by an animal as big and heavy as a horse is likely to be severe, condition a) is usually satisfied.   Very often condition b) is met as well because kicking, shying etc (i.e. the things which get you hurt) are characteristics which most horses exhibit at certain times or in particular circumstances.  Horse injury cases therefore tend to turn on whether a horse was a known bucker or kicker, etc.

In the recently reported case of Smith v Harding, Ms Smith was knocked over and trampled while trying to clip Mr Harding’s horse and suffered serious injury.  She sued Mr Harding as the owner and keeper.  The horse had been cross-tied for clipping and had panicked which had caused the accident.  The court accepted that Mr Harding had no idea that the horse was difficult to clip. However  because any horse would be likely to react badly to clipping if over restrained and frightened, he would have been liable for Ms Smith’s injuries except for one thing.  The Animals Act also says that a person cannot claim damages if they have voluntarily accepted the risk of injury.  The Judge accepted evidence that Ms Smith had been warned that the horse was difficult to clip and had been told not to attempt it.

However, and this is the interesting part, the Animals Act also says that if someone takes a risk incidental to their employment, they are not to be treated as accepting it voluntarily.  In other words, if you are employed to ride or be around horses and you get hurt, your employer cannot rely on the usual defence that horses are likely to injure you, at least in some circumstances, and so you knew the risk you were taking.  Therefore if Ms Smith was an employee she would not be assumed to have accepted the risk.

Ms Smith worked as a part time groom at Mary’s Yard Stables where Mr Harding kept his horse and was paid for the work she did. But it was unclear whether she was employed as a groom or worked there on a self-employed basis. After hearing all the usual arguments about when a groom is employed or self-employed, the Judge eventually decided that Ms Smith was self-employed.  On that basis, her claim failed.

None of the points of law in this case are new, but the way the case developed is a stark reminder for grooms and their employers of the important distinction between employed and self-employed status.  In a nutshell, the employed groom is far more likely to be able to bring a claim and the employer is likely to be insured.  The self-employed groom on the other hand, is very likely to be met by the defence that they knew what the horse was like or, failing that, knew horses in general and were aware that they could behave in certain ways at certain times and consequently had voluntarily accepted the risk of injury should such behaviour occur.

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About the author

Jill Headford

Jill Headford

Partner and Solicitor

A partner in the firm since 1994 and an experienced Court and Tribunal advocate, Jill specialises in resolving disputes and is a member of the Property Litigation Association