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Eriksson v. Nunnink

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Second Division

January 27, 2015

KARAN ERIKSSON et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
KRISTI NUNNINK, Defendant and Respondent.

[CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION[*]]

APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County No. RIC498680 Craig Riemer, Judge.

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COUNSEL

Butler & Dodge and Terrence L. Butler for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Soltman, Levitt, Flaherty & Wattles and Garth M. Drozin for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

KING, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

In 2006, Mia Eriksson was a 17-year-old equestrian eventing competitor and the daughter of plaintiffs and appellants, Karan and Stan Eriksson.[1] Defendant and respondent, Kristi Nunnink, was Mia’s riding coach. In November 2006, Mia’s horse struck a hurdle during the cross-country portion of an event at Galway Downs in Temecula. With the Erikssons looking on, Mia fell off her horse and the horse fell on Mia, causing her death.

The Erikssons sued Nunnink for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). The Erikssons alleged that Nunnink substantially increased the risk Mia reasonably assumed bye, among other actions, allowing Mia to ride a horse that “was unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice” and concealing this condition from the Erikssons.

In an earlier appeal, we reversed an order granting summary judgment for Nunnink. (See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826 [120 Cal.Rptr.3d 90] (Eriksson I).) The case was thereafter tried to the court. After the presentation of the Erikssons’ case-in-chief, the court granted Nunnink’s motion for entry of judgment pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 631.8.[2] The court relied, in part, on a release of liability entered into between Nunnink and Mia about six months prior to Mia’s death. The Erikssons appealed.

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The Erikssons contend that the release of liability is ambiguous and does not apply to their claims and that, based on the evidence presented and the applicable law, the court erred in granting Nunnink’s motion for entry of judgment. In the published portion of our opinion, we hold the release is enforceable and can be asserted by Nunnink as a defense to the Erikssons’ wrongful death and NIED claims and Nunnink can therefore be liable only if Mia’s death was caused by Nunnink’s gross negligence. In the unpublished portion, we conclude that the Erikssons failed to establish that Nunnink was grossly negligent. We therefore affirm the judgment.

II. SUMMARY OF FACTS

A. Background

Eventing is an equestrian sport in which horse and rider compete in three events over three days. The dressage event takes place on the first day, [3] cross-country on the second day, and show jumping on the third. The competitive eventing season runs from late January through November.

Different eventing organizations use different nomenclature for a competition’s level of difficulty. International, or FEI, competitions are classified as one-star, two-star, three-star, or four-star. National competitions under the auspices of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) include “novice, ” “training, ” “preliminary, ” “intermediate, ” and “advanced” levels. A two-star cross-country event is longer and, according to Nunnink and Karan, more challenging than a USEF intermediate competition.[4] The Galway Downs competition where Mia died was a two-star competition.

In a two-star event, the cross-country jumping course is approximately 4, 800 meters long and involves jumps over numerous fences and other obstacles. In contrast to the fences used in the show jumping event, the fences on the cross-country course do not give way or fall down when struck by a horse.

Nunnink is a professional rider and eventing coach who has coached about 80 riders over 25 years. Nunnink said that her job as a coach is to “coach riders to ride their horses better.” She explained that her students would not necessarily advance to a higher level merely by competing in a certain number of events. In fact, she would discourage her students from advancing before mastering their current level.

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The Erikssons hired Nunnink to be Mia’s eventing coach in 2001. In 2005 and 2006, Nunnink had two or three coaching sessions with Mia each week. The sessions took place at the Erikssons’ Tahoe Meadows horse ranch in the Truckee area.

In May 2006, Mia and Nunnink entered into a release of liability agreement in which Mia agreed to release Nunnink from all liability except for damages caused by Nunnink’s “direct, willful and wanton negligence.” (This release is discussed in more detail below.)

In planning for the eventing season, Nunnink and Mia would identify particular events they wanted to enter. The final decision would be made jointly by Nunnink, Karan, and Mia.[5] If Mia had difficulty at a given level of competition, Nunnink would make the decision to have Mia “step back” to a lower level to be safe.

Mia aspired to be an Olympic rider. In early 2006, she told Nunnink of her goal to raise her level of competition by moving up through one-star and intermediate competitions to a two-star event. Nunnink thought Mia could make that progression.

In 2006, Mia competed in eight 3-day events prior to the Galway Downs event. The only horse Mia rode that year was Koryography, or Kory. Nunnink described Kory as talented and an “upper-level horse.”

Mia’s last four competitions prior to Galway Downs were (1) Rebecca Farms in July, (2) Woodside in August, (3) Twin Rivers in September, and (4) Ram Tap in October. All four competitions were rated intermediate. Prior to these events, Mia had never competed at that level. The Galway Downs competition would be Mia’s and Kory’s first two-star event.

According to Nunnink, Mia had “rough” rides at the Rebecca Farms and Woodside competitions in that Kory struck his knees on various jumps. At Twin Rivers in September, Kory “hook[ed] the stifle” during the cross-country event. Nunnink explained that hooking a stifle occurs when the horse hits the uppermost portion of the rear legs against a fence during a jump. The incident caused swelling in the area of the injury. The Twin Rivers veterinarian indicated that Kory had a bruise and said they should put ice on it. The veterinarian said that if Kory “trotted sound” in the morning he could show jump. Kory received no further medical attention at that time. The next day,

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Kory performed in the show-jumping event and, according to Nunnink, was “fine.” He did not receive any medication for the Twin Rivers injury.

After Twin Rivers, Nunnink told Karan she wanted Mia to compete at Ram Tap, which was not on the original schedule. Karan agreed.

B. Ram Tap

The Ram Tap competition took place on October 20 through 22, 2006. During the cross-country event on the second day, Kory tripped and fell near the 18th jump. A Ram Tap event veterinarian, Dr. Liz Bracken, examined Kory. Dr. Bracken indicated that Kory had swelling and a hematoma on his chest and had suffered a concussion. She said they needed to watch him carefully. Kory was given Bute, an anti-inflammatory, and other medications.

According to Karan, the evening after Kory’s Ram Tap fall, she told Nunnink, “We’re done, ” meaning that Mia’s eventing season was finished. Nunnink did not argue, but told Karan she wanted Kory to jump a few fences the next morning so that Kory does not “end on a fall.”

Dr. Bracken saw Kory again the next day. Nunnink was present during the examination. After the examination, Dr. Bracken indicated that Kory could do a few jumps that afternoon. Karan told Nunnink they could do these jumps, but they were then “done for the season.”[6]

Nunnink testified that Kory then performed about 30 jumps, including a jump over the fence where Kory fell, and had no problem with any of them. Karan, however, testified that Kory performed about six “entry-level” jumps, and looked “rough.”

After Kory returned to Tahoe Meadows, Karan cut back on Kory’s “high-powered feed” and replaced his competition horseshoes with “regular” shoes.

On October 25 or 26, Mia informed Nunnink that she and her parents had a family meeting and agreed that Mia could compete at Galway Downs. Karan, however, testified that she agreed to allow Mia and Kory to go to Galway Downs to compete in the dressage event only.

Nunnink called a veterinarian to ask about the hematoma on Kory’s chest, but Kory was not seen by a veterinarian. He was given medication through

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Friday, October 27. Nunnink did not see any swelling or discharge from Kory’s head injury. To Nunnink, Kory “seemed perfectly healthy.”

Kory and Mia had an eventing lesson on October 29 and, in Nunnink’s opinion, Kory jumped very well.

On October 29, Nunnink trailered Kory to her facility in Auburn, where Kory stayed for the next two nights. During that time, Kory was not being administered any medications.

On October 30, Mia and Kory performed jumps to prepare for Galway Downs. Nunnink thought the lesson went well. She testified that Karan observed the ...


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