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Published: August 16, 2008 06:00 am ShareThisPrintThis
Horse, victim share blame for serious bite
By Julie Manganis
Staff writer

TOPSFIELD - Maggie could be a mean horse, some say.
Described as an "Alpha mare," she would frighten off other horses with a menacing expression, her ears pinned back, her teeth bared, to claim her territory in the paddock.
"I have never seen a horse be so nasty and aggressive toward other horses," Darlene Swan, who owned a horse called Destiny, told lawyers. Destiny once took a swift kick in the chest from Maggie. Another horse, called Ben, took a kick to his shoulder.
And the Morgan horse didn't seem to have much regard for people, either. She once tried to bite the veterinarian giving her a shot. Another time, she lunged at a young woman and her pony who boarded at the same stable, witnesses say.
But none of that made Maggie an inherently dangerous horse, a Salem District Court jury decided yesterday.
When Maggie bit Betty Ingram and caused serious injuries back in 2004, Ingram filed suit, alleging that Maggie's owners, Michelle and David West, were responsible and demanding that they compensate her for medical bills, scarring, nerve damage, and pain and suffering.
The Wests and their lawyer countered that Ingram, a lifelong horsewoman who had already had at least one close call with the horse, should have seen it coming and been more careful around the horse.
The jury found yesterday that the Wests were negligent - but only 60 percent at fault. In a 5-1 decision, they concluded that Ingram was 40 percent at fault.
They awarded Ingram $4,800.
The case is unusual for a couple of reasons.
When someone is bitten by a dog, the owner almost always is held liable, unless he can prove that the dog was being teased or abused or that the victim of the bite was trespassing or otherwise breaking the law.
The law about liability for horse bites is quite different. It presumes that anyone who spends time around horses in "equine activities" is familiar with the "inherent risks." So a horse owner is not liable unless the victim can show that the horse had unusually dangerous propensities that the owners knew about or that the owners were negligent in controlling their horse.
Horses even have their own law, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 128 Section 21, the "Equine Statute."
The bite and the ensuing lawsuit marked the end of a friendship between Ingram and Michelle West, who met while both boarded their horses at a Georgetown stable. When the stable closed, they both moved their horses to Choate Farm in Danvers. Then that stable closed.
The Wests decided to buy a home in Topsfield with room for Maggie and maybe a couple of other horses.
Ingram accepted their invitation to move her new horse, Cassie, to the Wests' new barn - even though Maggie had kicked Ingram's first horse, Ben.
"Michelle and I were best friends," said Ingram, explaining her decision.
Months later, in January, as the two women talked, Maggie lurched over her stall door and bit Ingram on the shoulder, knocking her to the ground. Ingram was not seriously injured, but she testified that after that, she started looking around for a new stable for Cassie. She never moved her horse, however, because Cassie hurt her leg soon after that and couldn't be moved until the leg healed.
Then in March, Ingram agreed to take care of both Maggie and Cassie while the Wests were on a vacation.
On the afternoon of March 25, Ingram had Cassie outside on one side of a fence. Maggie was on the other side, when she suddenly lunged forward and over the fence. Maggie clamped down on Ingram's upper right arm, this time breaking skin and leaving a deep wound.
Ingram still has deep divots on her upper arm, which will require plastic surgery to fix, and nerve damage. Her right arm is not as strong now and she can no longer do many of the stable chores she used to.
Swan testified at a deposition that when she saw Ingram's arm, "It looked like she had been mauled."
Michelle West testified that she knew Maggie was aggressive around other horses. And she acknowledged that she took no special precautions with her horse.
She said she thought the fence she and her husband had built to keep Maggie separated from Cassie would be enough.
West also described her horse as "happy." Maggie happened to be pregnant at the time. "She loved being pregnant," West testified. "She was docile."
West's lawyer, Kenneth Anderson, argued to jurors that if Ingram was willing to move her horse to West's barn, she couldn't have been too concerned about Maggie.
"How dangerous can this horse really be?" Anderson argued. And, he argued, Ingram "put herself within lunging range" of the horse.
Ingram's lawyer, Louis Muggeo, countered that Anderson was trying to shift blame for the incident. "He's putting Betty on trial," Muggeo argued. "The horse, unprovoked, not spooked ... came charging out of the stall, reached over the fence and attacked Betty. Is that Betty's fault?"
Maggie still lives in the barn where the incident occurred, Anderson said. In the stall next to her is her colt.
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