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Whether a contract is against public policy is a question of law for the court to determine from all the circumstances of each case. It is clearly to the interest of the public that persons should not be unnecessarily restricted in their freedom to make their own contracts, and agreements therefore are not to be held void as being contrary to public policy, unless they are clearly contrary to what the legislature or judicial decision has declared to be the public policy, or they manifestly tend to injure the public in some way. On the other hand the interests of the public do require that there shall be some restrictions on the freedom of persons to enter into contracts; and if an agreement binds a party to do or not to do anything, the doing or omission of which is manifestly injurious to the public interests, the courts must declare it contrary to public policy and therefore illegal and void.
Defendants were the operator of The Lodge at Chama. The Lodge offered horseback riding expeditions as well as other recreational activities. Plaintiff, Nicholas Berlangieri, and other employees of Honeywell Corporation were guests at The Lodge. Prior to the riding expedition, Jeri Simms, The Lodge's manager, spoke with each participant, including Plaintiff, to determine the participant's experience and ability in horseback riding. Simms concluded that Plaintiff was a novice rider. Simms explained to each guest that due to the unpredictable nature of horses, horseback riding involves certain unavoidable risks of injury. Simms gave each guest a copy of The Lodge's "Agreement for Release and Assumption of Risk" (hereafter the Release) and asked the guest to read and sign it. As each guest signed the Release, Simms asked the guest if he or she understood the terms of the agreement. Each guest, including Plaintiff, stated that he understood. In view of the inexperience of the Honeywell group, The Lodge selected gentle, easygoing horses for the trail ride. However, during the course of the ride, plaintiff got injured. Consequently, plaintiff filed a Complaint for Personal Injury Damages alleging that Plaintiff had suffered severe injuries, including brain injury. Plaintiff alleged that his injuries were the result of Defendants’ negligence, carelessness, and recklessness. Gay Davenport, an experienced horse trainer and riding instructor, provided an expert opinion as to the cause of the fall. Based on the eyewitness reports of the fall, Davenport concluded that "the saddle was not properly positioned and/or the cinch was not properly tightened; or this equipment failed, causing the saddle to slide sideways off the top of the horse." Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that they were not liable for Plaintiff's injuries because they were exculpated by the Release and because Plaintiff's injuries were the result of "equine activities," which under the Equine Liability Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 42-13-1 to -5 (1993, as amended through 1995) could not be the basis of liability. The district court granted summary judgment as to the release, but not as to the Equine Liability Act. The parties appealed.
Could the defendants be held liable for plaintiff’s injuries, notwithstanding the Release Agreement signed by plaintiff?
The appellate court concluded that the exculpatory agreement was unenforceable, as commercial operators of recreational premises were subject to a non-disclaimable duty to exercise ordinary care to protect patrons from foreseeable risks of physical injury or death. Public policy imposed on commercial operators of recreational or sports facilities a non-disclaimable duty to exercise due care to avoid risks of physical injury to consumers. The evidence was sufficient to support reasonable inferences that the rider's injuries were the proximate result of improper saddling of his horse and that the employee of the Lodge who saddled the horse knew or should have known of the faulty positioning of the tack. That created genuine issues of material fact as to the applicability of N.M. Stat. Ann. § 42-13-4(C). Accordingly, the district court's denial of summary judgment as to the Loge's affirmative Equine Liability Act defense was affirmed, and the court's denial of summary judgment as to the release was reversed.