British girl Ashleigh Harris,18, recently won a landmark legal case after breaking her back falling from a horse. She was left paralyzed from the waist downwards at the age of just 14 and is now confined to a wheelchair. The horse, Polly Perks, belonged to her boyfriend Kieran’s mother, and in the ground-breaking court case, the judge has ruled that Rachel Miller, owner of the horse, must pay full compensation of up to £3 million. This case now has far-reaching implications for all horse owners in the UK.
The compensation awarded, a possible £3 million, (just over $3.5 million) could leave the Miller family destitute. The Millers, who are refusing to comment on the case, argued in court that they should not be held liable for the tragic consequence of Ashleigh’s free choice to mount the horse on that fateful day.
One British lawyer, Caroline Bowler, equine law expert at Actons, in Nottingham, UK, said that it should make anyone who owns a horse think twice before allowing others, family or friends, ride them. She points out that a number of horse owners do not have the requisite specialist horse insurance, but instead depend on third-party liability insurance included in their household policy, which may not always (as the Millers have discovered) cover them for the full amount of compensation sought. Ms. Bowler comments that this has set a legal precedent, and now many more claims of this type may be forthcoming in the future. Owing to the growing popularity of horse-riding as a pastime, there are now an increasing number of lawyers in the UK who specialize in equine law cases.
The accounts of what actually occurred on that fateful day, September 22, 2012, are wildly at variance, as is public opinion as to whether Kieran’s mother Mrs. Miller was responsible for what happened to Ashleigh. Apparently, Mrs. Miller was very inexperienced with horses before buying Polly Perks, who was certainly a handful. The thoroughbred mare had been bought only a week before from a farmer, who had trained her, and found her very temperamental and difficult to control. It had become clear that the animal was unsuitable for an inexperienced woman like Rachel Miller, who had only recently started riding.
On the day in question, Ashleigh was coaxed into riding the horse by Mrs. Miller, and the latter handed over her own protective clothing, shock-absorbent padded jacket, designed to protect the backbone in case of impact (the type of jacket worn for many different sports and outdoor activities). Ashleigh says that she didn’t feel safe on the horse once mounted, but Mrs. Miller encouraged her to ride on. Ashleigh was riding at a gentle trot, but Polly then broke into an uncontrolled canter, and Ashleigh was unseated, thrown forward across the head of the horse and her spine was broken in the fall, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.
After 6 months in the hospital and a rehabilitation center, Ashleigh has returned home. Her parents’ house has been specially adapted for her: they have converted one downstairs room into a bedroom, and built an extension on the house, paid for with a disability living grant, fundraising, and their own finances. Ashleigh now suffers from ongoing health problems, including a weakened immune system. Her relationship with her first boyfriend Kieran has also ended on a sour note.
Ashleigh states that despite everything she has no feelings of bitterness towards the family and that she would not have taken legal action if the Millers had agreed on an out-of-court settlement for the maximum sum payable by their insurers under the “personal liability” cover. But this offer was rejected, and as a result of the recent ruling, they may now have to pay up to £3 million out of their own pockets. The judge in the case ruled that, as an inexperienced rider, Rachel Miller made a grave error of judgment in acquiring such a troublesome horse, and that there was a breach of duty of care in allowing Ashleigh to ride the said horse, a breach which caused a life-changing accident.
Following this judgment, the British Horse Society comments that it has been inundated with inquiries from horse-owners who are now feeling anxious about insurance matters. Director Emma Day says: “ We always advise that when you are lending your horse to other riders you should ensure both that they are fully competent as a rider, and that you have the right insurance, to protect both rider and owner.” (Quoted in the Daily Mail, 11 November 2016.)
Picture courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk