Karan Eriksson and Stan Eriksson v Kristi Nunnink (2015) H&FLR 2015-10
California Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District)
27 January 2015
Coram: Richli AP; King and Miller JJ
Appearing for the Plaintiffs: Terrence L Butler (of Butler & Dodge)
Appearing for the Defendant: Garth M Drozin (of Soltman, Levitt, Flaherty & Wattles)
Catchwords: California – horse – release – waiver – wrongful death – parental consent – coach.
Facts: The plaintiffs were the parents of Mia Eriksson, a 17-year-old equestrienne who aspired to compete in eventing at an Olympic level. In 2001 the plaintiffs retained the defendant as Mia’s coach. In May 2006 Mia signed (and Karan Eriksson countersigned as her parent) an agreement releasing Nunnink from liability for damages aside from those caused by her “direct, willful and wanton negligence”.
On 20-22 October 2006 Mia competed in an eventing competition at Ram Tap. During the event her horse fell, suffering swelling on his chest and a concussion. It was subsequently agreed that Mia and the same horse would compete in a competition at Galway Downs on 3-5 November 2006 (there was dispute as to precisely what events it was agreed she would compete in). Prior to competing at Galway Downs the horse was inspected by two event judges and a veterinarian and considered fit to compete. On the second day of the competition (a cross country event) Mia’s horse refused to jump fences four times and she was disqualified. However, she continued with the event and attempted to jump a further fence. The horse struck the fence, causing a rotational fall in which the horse landed on its back (and on top of its rider). Mia suffered fatal injuries in the accident.
The plaintiffs sued the defendant in Riverside County Superior Court for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The defendant sought and was granted summary dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claim (1). This dismissal was reversed on appeal and the matter remitted for trial (2). At trial, the proceeding was dismissed after presentation of the plaintiff’s case and without hearing from the defendant (3). The plaintiffs appealed.
Held: Dismissing the appeal, that –
1. Because Karan had signed the release as Mia’s parent, it became final and binding and could not be disaffirmed. Karan did not, however, thereby become a party to the release or bound by the promises made by Mia in it.
Hohe v San Diego Unified School District (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 1559; Aaris v Las Virgenes Unified School District (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 1112, followed.
Daniels v Sunrise Senior Living Inc (2013) 212 Cal.App.4th 674, considered.
2. The release did, however, curtail the plaintiffs’ rights. Although wrongful death claims do not derive from the deceased’s putatively-infringed rights and are an independent cause of action, the plaintiff in such a case is bound by the deceased’s agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume the risk. The relevant duty of care in such a case is that owed by the defendant to the deceased; this duty can be limited or eliminated by the deceased’s signing a release. A defendant cannot owe a greater duty to a person bringing a wrongful death claim than was owed to the deceased.
Ruiz v Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838; Horwich v Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 272, followed.
Coates v Newhall Land & Farming Inc (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, considered
3. The claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress failed on a similar basis to the claim for wrongful death: the release removed the defendant’s duty of ordinary care toward the deceased and as a corollary also removed the defendant’s duty to protect her parents from the risk of the emotional distress. A defendant is able to assert the same defences against claims by bystanders (the position of the plaintiffs) as the defendant could assert against the direct victim, including signing of a release.
Dillon v Legg (1968) 68 Cal.2d 728
4. Once the defendant had shown that the release was applicable, the burden was on the plaintiffs to show that the defendant had been grossly negligent. The plaintiffs’ own evidence did not establish that the defendant had acted with either gross negligence or willful and wanton negligence.
The court’s judgment is available here.
Note: The plaintiffs’ determination to pursue this matter more understandable when one notes that they had previously sued unsuccessfully for the death of another daughter in a separate riding accident (4). It is difficult to imagine a worse set of tragedies for a parent.
(1) Eriksson v Nunnink  Metropolitan News-Enterprise, 11 January 2011, at 1.
(2) Eriksson v Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826
(3) Eriksson v Del Mar Eventing Inc (2012) Chronicle of the Horse, 1 February 2012.
(4) Eriksson v California State University Fresno (5th Dist. Ct App. Calif., Wiseman APJ, Levy and Gomes JJ, 25 September 2007, unreported)