Horses on the Highway: Who Is Liable if a Fatal or Injury Auto Accident Occurs?
In September 2012, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that a 69-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes, California man named Ryan Y. Koyama was killed in a fatal car accident. The accident occurred when Koyama was driving southbound on Crenshaw Boulevard. At just after 2 a.m., Koyama encountered a horse that had gotten loose in Rolling Hills Estates. Koyama’s Mercedes SL 500 hit the left side of the horse and then struck a fence. Koyama was subsequently taken to a hospital nearby and pronounced dead. The horse died at the accident scene. The animal had escaped from Seahorse Riding Club; however, the gates were locked at the club and trainer Devon Gibson indicated that it was unclear how the horse had escaped from the facility.
“This tragic case is not the first where an escaped horse has caused a fatal crash,” explained California car accident lawyer James Ballidis."Responsibility for the accident will depend upon whether negligence was involved in the escape of the horse."
California has certain laws related to horses on roadways. For instance, California Motor Vehicle Code section 21759 requires that drivers must slow down or stop when approaching horse drawn vehicles or people on horseback on the road to avoid frightening the horse. California Motor Vehicle Code section 21805 requires vehicles to yield to equestrians at equestrian crossings. Section 21050 mandates that every person riding or driving an animal on a highway has the rights and duties of motor vehicle drivers. These laws refer to cases where a horse has been taken onto a highway intentionally.
In cases where a horse escapes, the legal responsibility of the owner is going to depend upon whether the owner was negligent or careless in any way that led to the escape of the horse or the resulting accident. In a famous 1994 case called Sea Horse Ranch v. Superior Court of San Mateo County, a ranch owner was charged with involuntary manslaughter when his horses escaped and caused an auto accident, leading to the death of a 76-year-old woman. The horses were kept in a corral with rotting and improperly mounted boards, so it was very easy for the horse to break through. The horses also had a history of escaping. In this case, however, the owner clearly had not maintained the fence properly, creating a very serious risk that the horses would escape and cause accidents on nearby roadways.
The law in California makes clear that a horse owner is not always going to be held legally responsible when a horse escapes. Food and Agriculture Code Section 16904 dealing with “Animals at Large” states: “In any civil action which is brought by the owner, driver, or occupant of a motor vehicle, or by their personal representatives or assignees, or by the owner of livestock, for damages which are caused by collision between any motor vehicle and any domestic animal on a highway, there is no presumption or inference that the collision was due to negligence on behalf of the owner or the person in possession of the animal.”
This code provision indicates that an animal owner is not automatically going to be held civilly liable in accidents between a domestic animal and a vehicle on a highway. For a lawsuit to be successful, the driver of the motor vehicle or family members of a driver killed in a crash would need to demonstrate that the owner of the animal had breached some legal duty.
If family members of Ryan Y. Koyama wish to take action against the stables, they will need to prove that negligence occurred and resulted in the animal getting loose. If the stables were secured and no negligence was involved in the horse’s escape, Seahorse Riding Club would not be held legally liable for damages.
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