No More Horsing Around with the Ohio Revised Code

Author: Chris Tieke, Contributing Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

The Ohio Supreme Court sets a common approach to interpreting statutorily created torts and immunities: Smith v. Landfair, Horvath v. Ish, and Houdek v. ThyssenKrupp Materials, N.A., Inc.

Today, state legislatures play an increasingly important role in creating and implementing statutes that define, and sometimes limit, tort liability.  In tension with this increased activism by legislatures is the traditional role of courts in creating common law principles and traditions of recovery for tort claims.  With legislatures willing to become more involved in determining when actions may give rise to civil liability, much of a court’s work has shifted to applying rules of statutory interpretation.  Knowing that a court uses rules of statutory construction to interpret statutes is Law School 101.  More important, however, is to understand which rules the court applies and the manner in which the court applies them to cases when a particular statute is at issue.  The recent Ohio Supreme Court cases of Smith v. Landfair, Horvath v. Ish, and Houdek v. ThyssenKrupp Materials, N.A., Inc. have clarified the Court’s approach to statutory interpretation with regard to statutory torts and immunities. [1]

In these three cases, the Court demonstrated its approach to reconciling common law tort principles with Ohio’s statutorily created torts and immunities. Two rules of statutory interpretation are evident from those decisions: 1) the Court will rely heavily on the actual text of the statute to determine the legislature’s original intent, and 2) the Court will read the statute as a whole rather than analyze individual provisions in isolation. The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Smith v. Landfair, which involved an interpretation of Ohio’s equine-activities-immunity statute,[2] serves as the best case-study on the Court’s approach to tort-related statutory interpretation.

Landfair involved a personal-injury claim by Roshel Smith against horse owner, Donald Landfair.  The incident occurred when Landfair was returning to CJS Standardbred Stables (“CJS”) after taking two of his horses, Green Acre Patty and Green Acre Annie (“Annie”) off-site.[3]  Roshel Smith, the daughter of CJS’s owner, who also worked at CJS at the time, had stopped by the farm to visit her father.[4]  Smith was standing near the barn where Landfair was unloading his horses from the trailer.[5]  While unloading the horses, Annie was spooked by a commotion. She pushed Landfair to the ground outside the trailer and stepped on him.[6]  Smith ran over to help and was subsequently kicked in the head by the horse.[7] She suffered facial and head injuries.[8]  Smith filed a claim against Landfair alleging that he negligently handled his horse and did not seek assistance in unloading the horse from the trailer.[9]  Landfair filed a motion for summary judgment claiming immunity under Ohio’s equine-activities-immunity statute.[10]

Ohio’s equine-activities-immunity statute provides immunity for horse owners against an injury that an equine activity participant allegedly sustains during an equine activity and that results from an inherent risk in that equine activity.[11]  The statue goes on to broadly define “equine activity,” as including “the trailering, loading, unloading, or transporting of an equine.”[12]  In addition, the definition of an “equine activity participant” includes “being a spectator at an equine activity.”[13]  Finally, the statute requires that the alleged injury must have resulted from an “inherent risk of an equine activity,” which is defined as “a danger or condition that is an integral part of an equine activity […].”[14]

The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed the case in order to resolve the definition of “spectator” under Ohio’s equine-activities-immunity statute.[15]  Ultimately, the Court held that a “spectator” is one who “purposely places himself or herself in a location where equine activities are occurring and who sees such activity.”[16]  Applying this definition, the Court found that Smith was a “spectator” and consequently was an “equine activity participant” as defined by R.C. 2305.321.  Accordingly, Landfair was entitled to immunity under Ohio’s equine-activities-immunity statute for any injuries Annie caused to Smith.

Legislative Intent – A Textual Approach

 “Spectator” is not defined in the equine-activities-immunity statute.  Therefore, the Court turned to the meaning of the text to give the words in the statute “their plain, common, ordinary meaning.”[17]  In fashioning its definition of a “spectator,” the Court was particularly influenced by the legislative intent behind R.C. 2305.321 as reflected in the statutory language.  In defining “spectator” the Court found that many of the characteristics of other “equine activity participants” as defined in the statute involved purposeful, active contact with an equine.[18]  Examples included riding, controlling, treating, and breeding animals.[19]  Therefore, “spectator” would have to be more than a mere bystander.[20]  The Court noted that if it adopted an alternative definition and extended “spectator” status to a passive bystander, then the definition would create disharmony with the other subsections that involved more active participation.[21]  After looking to how the legislature defined “equine activity participants” the Court concluded that the legislature’s intent to was to provide immunity to horse owners for injuries suffered by those who purposefully and actively engaged with an equine.[22] Accordingly, the Court defined a “spectator” as “one who purposely places himself or herself in a location where equine activities are occurring and who sees such an activity.”[23]

The Whole of the Statute is the Sum of Its Parts

In addition to examining legislative intent through textual analysis, the Court looked to the purpose of the equine-activities-immunity statute as a whole to define “spectator.” Rather than look in a dictionary for “spectator,” as the court of appeals did, the Ohio Supreme Court utilized other provisions of the statute as guidance in creating a definition for the term “spectator.”  As stated above, the Court looked to other types of “equine activity participants” as listed in the statute and found that all the other categories of participants included purposeful active contact with an equine such as riding, controlling, treating, and breeding.[24]  The Court rejected a broader reading equating “spectator” to a bystander or passerby.[25]  The Court found that by requiring a “spectator” to have a higher level of purposeful placement near an equine activity, its definition was consistent with the intent of the statute as a whole to recognize the inherent risks associated with horses and protect horse owners from liability for injuries stemming from those risks.[26]  The Court explained that merely glancing at a horse or being in the vicinity of a horse was not enough to render an individual a “spectator;” rather, the person must be there voluntarily and be aware that equine activities are occurring.[27]

Conclusion

The Ohio Supreme Court’s recent cases, including Landfair, reveal a much-needed uniform approach to statutory construction. The Court identified that it will 1) rely heavily on the text of the statute to determine the legislature’s original intent, and 2) will read the statute as a whole rather than analyze individual provisions in isolation.  Rather than looking to define terms in relation to outside sources or the pragmatic function of a statute in its application, the Court utilizes rules of construction that are concerned with the relation between words of the particular statute at issue.  The Court then defines ambiguous statutory terms in a way that is consistent with the legislature’s intent in enacting the statute as revealed through the text of the statute.

Having an insight into the Court’s rules of construction and understanding how the Court applies those rules can aid practitioners in deciding how to frame arguments, especially in the context of cases involving statutory torts and immunities.  When arguing statutory interpretation to the Court, a practitioner should understand how the statute functions as a whole and carefully consider the legislature’s intent in crafting the language used in the statute.

For more information on Smith v. Landfair, Horvath v. Ish, and Houdek v. ThyssenKrupp Materials, N.A., Inc., please visit: Legally Speaking Ohio


[1] 135 Ohio St.3d 89 (Ohio 2012); 134 Ohio St.3d 48 (Ohio 2012); 134 Ohio St.3d 491 (Ohio 2012).

[2] R.C. 2305.321 et seq.

[3] Landfair, 135 Ohio St.3d, at 90.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Landfair, 135 Ohio St.3d, at 90.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] R.C. § 2305.321(B)(1).

[12] R.C. § 2305.321(A)(2)(a)(iv).

[13] R.C. § 2305.321(A)(3)(g).  See R.C. §2305.321(A)(2)(a) for “equine activities.”

[14] R.C. § 2305.321(A)(7).

[15] Landfair, 135 Ohio St. 3d, at 90-91.  The trial Court granted Landfair’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Smith was an equine activity participant because she was a spectator present and noticed Landfair unloading Annie (an “equine activity”) at CJS.  Smith appealed, and the Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed and remanded holding that Smith was not an equine activity participant because she was not a spectator. Specifically, the Court found that Smith was not watching Landfair unload Annie, but had only witnessed the event “out of her peripheral vision” and thus she was not a “spectator.”

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 94.

[18] Id. at 96-97.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 96.

[23] Id. at 97.

[24] Id. at 96.

[25] Id. The Court uses examples from R.C. § 2305.321(A)(3)(a) – (f), which lists individuals who ride, control, treat, and breed animals as equine activity participants.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. at 97.

2 responses to “No More Horsing Around with the Ohio Revised Code

  1. Pingback: Merit Decision. The Court Defines “Spectator” Under Ohio’s Equine Immunity Statute. Smith v. Landfair. | Legally Speaking Ohio

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