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McCandless v. Ramsey

Supreme Court of Maine

July 11, 2019

NANCY J. McCANDLESS
v.
JOHN RAMSEY et al.

          Argued: October 11, 2018

          Arthur J. Greif, Esq. (orally), Gilbert & Greif, P.A., Bangor, for appellant Nancy J. McCandless

          Gregory S. Clayton, Esq. (orally), Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, Camden, for appellees John Ramsey et al.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, HUMPHREY, and CLIFFORD, [*] JJ.

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] Twenty years ago, responding to concerns about the costs of providing places for people to board and ride horses, the Legislature established immunity from liability for certain injuries suffered through the risks inherent in equine activities. See P.L. 1999, ch. 498, §§ 2-6 (effective Sept. 18, 1999) (codified at 7 M.R.S. §§4101, 4103-A (2018)); L.D. 2108, Summary (119th Legis. 1999). We are asked for the first time to address the scope of that immunity.

         [¶2] Nancy J. McCandless appeals from a summary judgment entered by the Superior Court (Washington County, Mallonee, J.) concluding that John and Tracy Ramsey's daughter is immune from liability on McCandless's complaint alleging that the child negligently rode a horse in an arena, causing injury to McCandless. We affirm the Superior Court's judgment holding that the immunity statute precludes the liability that could otherwise arise from the equine activities at issue here.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶3] The basic facts are these: McCandless was standing on a track inside a riding arena when a horse ridden by the Ramseys' ten-year-old daughter, after passing directly by McCandless three times, made contact with her during a fourth circuit. McCandless fell and injured her wrist, and she has now sued the child through her parents, seeking damages for her injuries.

         [¶4] The following details of the event are taken from the parties' statements of material facts and reflect the record as viewed in the light most favorable to McCandless as the nonprevailing party. See Avis Rent A Car Sys., LLC v. Burrill, 2018 ME 81, ¶ 2, 187 A.3d 583. On July 7, 2010, McCandless went to a horse arena to watch children ride horses. In the arena, a circular track one to two inches deep had been worn into the dirt and was visible to onlookers. Horses were not restricted to this track, however, and they rode throughout the arena and near the doors to the barn in which the arena was situated.

         [¶5] Spectators were accommodated in the interior of the barn, which included an observation room with a plexiglass window where people could observe the activities inside the structure. McCandless had been sitting outside of the observation room in one of a set of folding chairs that were arranged along the side of the indoor arena away from the horses.

         [¶6] McCandless got up from her seat and began walking from the folding chairs toward what she considered to be the most convenient barn exit. On her way, McCandless walked around some hay bales, which McCandless admits caused her to walk in the area where people rode horses.

         [¶7] The Ramseys' daughter, then ten years old, was riding a horse she had not ridden before in the indoor arena area. The girl completed three circuits in the arena, passing McCandless and others each time. At some point during her fourth circuit in the arena, the horse was slow to respond to the child rider's directions, and the horse made contact with McCandless when she was between five and fifteen feet from the barn door. McCandless fell and injured her wrist.

          [¶8] On July 6, 2016, McCandless filed a complaint against the Ramseys "as parents" of their daughter seeking damages for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost enjoyment of life, and permanent impairment allegedly incurred due to the Ramseys' daughter's negligence. See M.R. Civ. P. 17(b); Miller v. Miller, 677 A.2d 64, 67 (Me. 1996); see also 19-A M.R.S. § 1651 (2018).[1] The Ramseys moved for summary judgment on the ground that McCandless's negligence action was barred due to the statutory immunity provisions of 7 M.R.S. §§ 4101 and 4103-A.

         [¶9] The court granted the Ramseys' motion for summary judgment, holding that section 4103-A(1) provides a broad immunity from liability for injuries arising out of equine activities under routine conditions. The court concluded that none of the statutory exceptions to immunity applied. See id. §4103-A(2)-(4). McCandless filed a timely notice of appeal. See 14 M.R.S. § 1851 (2018); M.R. App. P. 2A, 2B(c)(1).

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶10] For purposes of summary judgment, we accept as true that the horse came in contact with McCandless and that McCandless was injured as a result of that contact. McCandless's appeal concerns only whether the court properly interpreted and applied the immunity statutes to preclude her suit against the Ramseys' daughter.

         [¶11] We review this decision granting a summary judgment "de novo, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, to determine whether the parties' statements of material facts reveal a genuine issue of material fact." Hilderbrand v. Wash. Cty. Comm'rs, 2011 ME 132, ¶ 7, 33 A.3d 425. "A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence requires a fact-finder to choose between competing versions of the truth." Farrington's Owners' Ass'n v. Conway Lake Resorts, Inc., 2005 ME 93, ¶ 9, 878 A.2d 504.

         [¶12] Because the person asserting the affirmative defense of immunity bears the burden of proof, see Hilderbrand, 2011 ME 132, ¶ 7, 33 A.3d 425, we review the summary judgment record to determine whether there is no genuine issue of material fact and the Ramseys have established the applicability of the immunity provision as a matter of law, see M.R. Civ. P. 56(c); Stanley v. Hancock Cty. Comm'rs, 2004 ME 157, ¶ 13, 864 A.2d 169.

         [¶13] We review de novo the trial court's interpretation and application of the relevant statutes governing immunity. See Perry v. Dean,2017 ME 35, ¶ 11, 156 A.3d 742; Bank of Am., N.A. v. Camire,2017 ME 20, ¶¶ 12, 13, 155 A.3d 416. "If the statute is unambiguous, we interpret the statute according to its unambiguous language, unless the result is illogical or absurd." Wawenock, LLC v. Dep't of Transp.,2018 ME 83, ¶ 7, 187 A.3d 609 (quotation marks omitted). To the extent that there is any ambiguity in the statute, meaning that it could reasonably be interpreted in more than one way, we ...


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