David Westcott QC in successful action for Claimant in Harris v Miller
David Westcott QC successfully acted for the Claimant in Harris v Miller  EWHC 2438 (QB).
The Claimant was 14 years old when she fell off the Defendant’s horse and sustained paraplegia. An action was originally brought in negligence and under the Animals Act 1971; but since, on the particular facts of the case, the Claimant could not have succeeded in the statutory claim if she failed at common law, only negligence was pursued at trial.
The facts were hotly disputed by the parties. It was the Claimant’s case that the horse bucked whilst cantering on flat ground, whereas the Defendant suggested the horse had dipped its head when walking downhill. The behaviour and temperament of the horse were also in issue.
The Claimant argued that if the court accepted her version of events, it must follow that a fall was reasonably foreseeable on the basis of the behaviour manifested by the horse. The Defendant contended that this was insufficient and the court had additionally to assess breach of duty in the context of the Defendant’s knowledge of the horse and the Claimant’s riding experience. It said that the decision to permit the Claimant to ride the horse was reasonable in all the circumstances, especially the Claimant’s stated experience and prior interactions with the horse.
HHJ Graham Wood QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge, preferred the evidence of the Claimant, considering her an impressive witness. In contrast, HHJ Graham Wood QC considered that the Defendant had “allowed herself to develop misinformed recollections based on perception rather than actual fact.”
The Judge accepted that he must consider the Defendant’s actual and constructive knowledge of both the horse and the rider. Nonetheless, permitting the Claimant to ride the horse was a breach of the Defendant’s duty. He held that an ordinary and reasonably prudent owner would ensure she possessed sufficient knowledge of the horse and the intended rider so as to assess the risk involved in this inherently dangerous activity.
The Defendant knew that the Claimant was a 14 year old with limited riding experience and had not enquired whether the Claimant had ever ridden a horse, let alone a thoroughbred. This amounted to a “serious error of judgment” because the Defendant should have known that the horse was difficult to handle, even for a competent novice such as the Claimant.
The Defendant exposed the Claimant to an unnecessary risk of injury, in circumstances where it was reasonably foreseeable that the horse would be strong and difficult to control, and was likely to unseat a rider of the Claimant’s competence and an injury of some sort was foreseeable. Not foreseeing serious injury as a consequence was immaterial.
Damages will be assessed at a future date.
Barristers: David Westcott QC