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Marcia Beckwith v. Karl and Tina Weber

April 25, 2012

MARCIA BECKWITH, APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
KARL AND TINA WEBER, HUSBAND AND WIFE, DBA GROS VENTRE RIVER RANCH, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Teton County The Honorable Timothy C. Day, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Davis, District Judge.

Before GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ., and DAVIS, DJ.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] These consolidated appeals arise from a judgment on jury verdict in a case involving personal injuries suffered by Appellant Marcia Beckwith. She fell from a horse while on a trail ride operated by the Gros Ventre River Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. The jury found that Ms. Beckwith's injuries were the result of an inherent risk of horseback riding as defined by the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and she therefore recovered no damages for her injuries. In Case No. S-11-0101, Ms. Beckwith claims the district court erred in failing to instruct the jury as she requested. In Case No. S-11-0245, she claims the district court erred in awarding costs to Appellees due to her indigence. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] In Case No. S-11-0101, the issues are:

1. Did the District Court err when it declined to instruct the jury that a duty of care could arise from a contract and in refusing a verdict form which would have asked the jury to determine if Appellees provided skilled guides?

2. Did the District Court err in declining to instruct the jury on the meaning of the terms "characteristic," "intrinsic," and "integral" as they are used to define the term "inherent risk" in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act?

3. Did the District Court err in declining to instruct the jury that exculpatory clauses are to be strictly construed?

4. Did the District Court err in declining to instruct the jury that Appellant was exercising due care at the time she was injured?

[¶3] In Case No. S-11-0245, the issue is:

1. Did the District Court abuse its discretion in awarding costs to Appellees?

FACTS

[¶4] The Gros Ventre River Ranch is a guest ranch located in Teton County. The ranch offers trail rides in Grand Teton National Park near the Gros Ventre River. Appellees Karl and Tina Weber are the owners of the ranch.

[¶5] Appellant Marcia Beckwith lives near Detroit, Michigan. In 1993 she began coming to the guest ranch annually with her companion, James Tasse, and continued to do so until she was injured in 2006.*fn1 She had no experience with horses other than that gained at the guest ranch. Ms. Beckwith and Mr. Tasse stayed at the ranch and usually rode daily for up to two weeks during their annual visits.

[¶6] The guest ranch offered guided trail rides of three levels of difficulty depending on whether the horses were walked, trotted, or loped. A walk is a slow four-beat gait. A trot is faster and occurs when the horse's diagonal hind and forelegs reach out and land at the same time. At a lope, a horse moves still faster, with a three-beat gait followed by a brief period of suspension with none of its hoofs touching the ground. Lope is the western term for what might be called a canter elsewhere. A horse's fastest gait is the gallop, which is a four-beat rhythm with legs further extended. The risk that the horse will fall or stumble and that the rider will fall or be thrown increases with the speed of the horse's gait.

[¶7] On the advanced ride, the horses loped for between 15 and 30 seconds. Ms. Beckwith participated in all of the levels over the years. She signed up for an advanced ride on July 20, 2006. She was required to sign a document entitled "Visitor's Acknowledgment of Risk (for Grand Teton National Park)." The record indicates that the form was used because the guest ranch was a concessionaire in the park. It provided as follows:

Although The Gros Ventre River Ranch has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of this activity. The same elements that contribute to the unique character of this activity can be causes of loss or damage to your equipment, or accidental injury, illness or in extreme cases, permanent trauma or death. We do not want to frighten you or reduce your enthusiasm for this activity, but we do think it is important for you to know in advance what to expect and be informed of the inherent risks. The following describes some, but not all, of those risks.

A horse, irrespective of its training and usual past behavior and characteristics, may act or react unpredictably at times, based upon instinct or fright, which is an I [sic] inherent risk assumed by a horseback rider. Unforeseeable actions by a horse may cause the rider to lose control of or fall off of the animal.

I am aware that horseback riding entails risks of injury or death to myself. I understand the description of these risks is not complete and that other unknown or unanticipated risks may result in injury or death. I agree to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, no one is forcing me to participate, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

I certify that I am fully capable of participating in this activity. Therefore, I assume full responsibility for myself, including my minor children, for bodily injury, death and loss of personal property and expenses thereof as a result of those inherent risks and dangers and of my negligence in participating in this activity.

I have read, understand [sic] and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be effective and binding upon myself, my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estate and for all members of my family, including any minors accompanying me.

[¶8] The reverse side of this document contained a "Rider's Application & Liability Agreement," which included the following:

I acknowledge that the use, handling and riding of a horse involves a risk of physical injury to any individual undertaking such activities. I expressly assume all inherent risks involved in the use, handling and riding of the horse, whether those risks are known or unknown. Inherent risks are those dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of the use, handling and riding of a horse. Inherent risks include, but are not limited to:

(1) the propensity of the horse to behave in unpredictable ways, irrespective of its training and usual past behavior and characteristics, and to otherwise behave in ways that may result in injury, harm or death to person on or around them;

(2) the unpredictability of the reaction of a horse to sounds, sudden movement, and unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals;

(3) certain hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions;

(4) collisions with other horses or objects;

(5) the potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the animal or not acting within his or her ability.

I understand that Gros Ventre River Ranch, its officers, agents, employees, stockholders, and all other persons or entities associated with Gros Ventre River Ranch . . . are not legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to me or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks that may arise from the use, handling and riding of the horse. I further understand that The Gros Ventre River Ranch is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks that arise from the use, handling and riding of the horse. [Emphasis in original.]

I hereby waive any claim against the Gros Ventre River Ranch and hold it harmless for any physical injury to myself, physical injury to others, or for property damages.

[¶9] Following the above language was a section entitled "Help Us Pick The Right Horse For You," which included a questionnaire concerning the rider's age, height, and riding ability. For the July 20, 2006, ride, Ms. Beckwith was assigned to Fox, a large horse she had ridden before and liked.

[¶10] During the course of the half-day trail ride, Ms. Beckwith fell or was thrown from Fox and suffered compression fractures and other damage to her cervical and lumbar spine. The evidence indicated that the group on the trail ride had loped their horses for a brief period of time, and that Fox stepped in a badger hole about the size of a basketball as or shortly after the trail guide signaled the group to slow from the lope to a walk. Ms. Beckwith was unable to stay in the saddle after her horse stepped in the hole.

[¶11] Ms. Beckwith claims that she was left at the scene with Mr. Tasse after the accident because the trail guide did not know what to do, and therefore started back to the ranch with the rest of the group at a walk, planning to send help when she got there. Mr. Tasse became concerned that the couple had no water and that there were bison and other potentially aggressive wildlife in the area where they had been left. He helped Ms. Beckwith walk to a nearby residence, which was difficult for them because she was in considerable pain. From there they were able to use a telephone to summon help.

[¶12] In Case No. S-11-0101, Ms. Beckwith claimed that the ranch owners and their employees caused her injuries through negligence, and that their negligent acts were not inherent risks of horseback trail riding at a dude ranch. She identified the following acts of claimed negligence:

 The guide on the trail ride was not adequately trained.  There should have been two trail guides instead of one.  The horses should have had more space between them when loping than they did.  Ms. Beckwith was not appropriately screened to determine her ability to participate in a trail ride that included loping.  The area in which the ride took place was inappropriate for loping with a group of horses because of badger holes and other features which might cause a horse to stumble or fall.  The ranch did not prepare its guides adequately for emergencies on its ...


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