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Bernard v. Woodside Ranch, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

August 15, 2017



          STEPHEN L. CROCKER Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Linda Bernard was injured when she fell trying to get on a horse provided by defendant Woodside Ranch, LLC, which is insured by defendant Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company. Bernard has brought claims under Wisconsin negligence law and the state safe place statute, Wis.Stat. § 101.11, alleging that Woodside employees provided her with a faulty saddle that slipped and caused her to fall and injure herself.

         Defendants have moved for summary judgment. See dkt. 20. They argue that Woodside cannot be held liable under Wisconsin's equine immunity statute, Wis.Stat. § 895.481, and that the safe place statute does not apply in this case. In response, Bernard has withdrawn her claims under the safe place statute, see dkt. 29 at 12, but she argues that two different exceptions in the equine immunity statute apply to defendants' conduct in this case: (1) knowingly providing faulty equipment that caused her injury; and (2) acting with a willful or wanton disregard for her safety.

         For the reasons explained below, I conclude that there is a genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether defendants' conduct falls within the two exceptions to the immunity statute and am denying defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to those issues. I am granting defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to (1) whether Woodside qualifies as an equine activity sponsor that may fall within the scope of the immunity statute; and (2) Bernard's safe place statutory claims, which will be dismissed.

         The following facts are undisputed except where noted:


         Plaintiff Linda Bernard is a resident of Michigan, and involuntary plaintiff Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, is a Michigan corporation. Defendant Woodside Ranch, LLC has a principal office in Northridge, California. Woodside Ranch provides facilities and horses for trail rides, horse-drawn wagon rides, and riding lessons, and equips the horses for riding. Woodside Ranch employs wranglers, who perform the equine aspects of the ranch's business. Defendant Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company is a Pennsylvania Corporation that provided liability insurance coverage to Woodside Ranch and its agents and employees.

         On June 10, 2013, Bernard was a guest at the Woodside Ranch in Mauston, Wisconsin as part of an event for her professional association. Bernard's group had scheduled a horseback breakfast ride for that morning. It was the practice of the Woodside Ranch wranglers to talk with riders at the start of a ride to determine their knowledge, experience, and comfort level with horses. Prior to the ride, Brian Sletten, Woodside Ranch's wrangler manager, asked Bernard about her riding experience and she told him that she had ridden before. Bernard ended up riding Okie, a horse appropriate for any type of rider. One of Woodside Ranch's wranglers cinched Okie's saddle in preparation for Bernard to ride.

         Bernard avers that Okie's saddle looked old and in disrepair, with worn down leather in the area of the saddle horn. When she mounted the horse for the first time, Bernard noticed that the saddle did not feel right and informed a young female Woodside Ranch wrangler of the potential problem. The wrangler attempted to inspect or adjust the saddle. [Bernard avers that this wrangler seemed inexperienced and unsure, while defendants aver that Woodside Ranch selects as its wranglers people with a background in equine activity who grew up with horses.] As Bernard rode at the back of her group to the breakfast site, she told the same wrangler that something still was wrong with Okie's saddle and that it did not feel stable. The wrangler responded that the saddle was fine. When Bernard persisted in complaining that something was wrong with the saddle, the wrangler again responded “it is fine.”

         Bernard reached the clearing for breakfast and dismounted from Okie. She again told the wrangler that something was wrong with the saddle, that it might be broken and asked her to check it again. After breakfast, Bernard asked the wrangler if she had fixed the saddle, to which the wrangler responded that it was “fine.” To remount, Bernard stood on a wooden step called a mounting block on Okie's left side. While trying to remount Okie, Bernard the horse's saddle came off and Bernard fell to the ground, injuring her leg. [The parties seem to dispute whether Bernard pulled the saddle to the left in her attempt to mount the horse.] While lying on the ground after she fell, Bernard saw the cinch used to tighten Okie's saddle, and she believed that it looked worn or threadbare.

         Sletten has been a wrangler at Woodside Ranch for 27 years, 15 of those years as the wrangler manager. According to Sletten, Woodside Ranch had never used broken tack on a horse. The more experienced wranglers are the ones who secure the saddles to the horses. Wranglers inspect saddles and the parts that secure them to the horse for defects that might make them unsafe for use. If someone finds a problem, then Sletten would remove that saddle from use and replace any defective or broken parts. According to Sletten, a saddle capable of being pulled to the left has something wrong with it.

         A saddle is secured to a horse by running a nylon cinch under the horse and attaching it to the saddle's latigo and off billet.[1] If either the latigo or the off billet on a saddle were to have a defect or were to break, then the saddle could become loose. Saddle parts, particularly those made from leather (like latigos and off billets) can break down or become cut or damaged through use.

         Woodside Ranch does not have any documents regarding whether any parts of Oakie's saddle were changed or altered in any ...

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