(CN) - A equestrian coach is not liable to the parents of a 17-year-old killed when her horse fell and crushed her, a California appeals court ruled.
Mia Eriksson began taking riding lessons from Kristi Nunnink in 2001, eventually working with her two or three times per week at the Eriksson family's Tahoe Meadows horse ranch outside Truckee, Calif.
With aspirations to compete in the Olympics, Mia participated in eight three-day events in 2006 with a horse named Koryography, or Kory.
Mia's ninth and final event was a two-star competition called the Galway Downs in Temecula.
During the November event's cross-country portion, Kory refused to jump over five hurdles, eliminating Mia from the competition.
The rules required Mia to leave the course, but she continued on, and her horse struck one of the next hurdles.
Stan and Karan Eriksson watched from the sidelines as the horse fell on its back, crushing their daughter underneath.
The couple sued Nunnink for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress, claiming that Kory "was unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice."
A judge in Riverside County ruled for the coach, however, citing a release of liability that Mia signed six months before her death.
The Riverside-based Fourth Appellate District affirmed on Jan. 27.
"We hold the release is enforceable and can be asserted by Nunnink as a defense to the Eriksson's wrongful death and NIED claims and Nunnink can therefore be liable only if Mia's death was caused by Nunnink's gross negligence," Justice Jeffrey King wrote on behalf of the court's three-judge panel.
In addition the Erikssons's failure to prove that Nunnink was grossly negligent, the court noted that Karan had signed the release as well.
"By signing as Mia's parent, Karan approved of the terms of the release and understood that her signature made the release 'irrevocable and binding,'" King wrote.
The release also protects Nunnink from the Erikssons' emotional distress claim, according to the ruling.
"For a coach or other involved entity to fully protect themselves from liability they, in essence, would be required to obtain releases from all close relatives who may watch the participant engage in the sport," King wrote. "This would be unworkable."
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