WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – A show-jumping prospect sued equestrian sports mogul Mark Bellissimo, claiming his tournament sent her out to compete in a thunderstorm that spooked her horse and triggered a catastrophic accident.
In a lawsuit filed in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court on May 30, Eirin Bruheim claims Bellissimo and other event managers at his Tryon International Equestrian Center allowed a weather delay to be prematurely lifted, forcing her to compete in dangerous conditions during a July 2015 qualifying round.
While Bruheim was competing at the North Carolina event, stormy weather hit the arena, causing her horse to “spook … and topple into the next jump,” she claims.
The horse rolled over Bruheim, and the rider suffered a brain injury, according to the lawsuit.
Bruheim claims she has not been able to ride competitively since the accident.
Before the accident, Bruheim claims, she was rising in the ranks of the show jumping world, and had joined the national team in her home country of Norway. She planned to help Norway qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“All of … Bruheim’s past successes and future potential, however, were lost because Defendants willfully and wantonly disregarded her safety by commencing competition despite the dangerously bad weather,” the lawsuit alleges.
According to the complaint, those running the Tryon competition did not follow a United States Equestrian Federation rule that imparts event managers with the responsibility to shut down an event “if weather appears to be imminently affecting the safety and welfare of horses and/or exhibitors.”
The rule states that if an event is stopped because of a storm or other emergency, the “Show Committee will decide whether to re-commence.”
Bruheim says that in the time leading up to the accident, she did not want to voluntarily withdraw from the competition due to the weather because if she did, she could have lost her entry fees along with an opportunity to participate in the Grand Prix showdown.
She seeks damages for negligence.
Co-plaintiff Nordic Lights Farm, owner of the horse that Bruheim was riding, meanwhile seeks damages for diminution in value of the animal due to the accident.
Nordic Lights says it bought the horse, named “NLF Favorite,” for 1 million euros in Oct. 2013. Since the accident, it has been unsuccessful in its attempts to find a buyer for the horse, according to the lawsuit.
Two other horses owned by Nordic Lights — NLF Newsflash and Billy on Show — also lost value after the accident because they did not compete with the same frequency or level of success as they did when Bruheim was able to ride them, the lawsuit claims.
North Carolina has a law known as the Equine Activity Liability statute, which generally limits liability of equestrian sports event managers in the event of a rider’s injury or death “resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities.”
But Bruheim claims she is entitled to sue under an exception in the statute, which provides that tournament operators can be held liable if they commit an act of “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of [a] participant.”
Bellissimo, Tryon International Equestrian Center and several companies for which Bellissimo is listed as an officer are named as defendants.
The Tryon International Equestrian Center is the planned site for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.
In addition to the Tryon center, Bellissimo and his companies hold several other prominent equestrian properties, including Wellington, Fla.’s International Polo Club as well as the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the site of the long-running Winter Equestrian Festival.
Chronicle of the Horse reported that Bellissimo and his partners have invested more than $500 million in the equine industry. The Harvard business school graduate and wealthy developer is known as a zealous advocate for equestrian sports. He has expressed a desire to make equestrian sports more accessible so that they are not limited to an elite activity for the wealthy.
Bellissimo has litigated high-profile business tiffs and land-development disputes extensively in Palm Beach County court, often making local headlines.
Tryon International Equestrian Center and Bellissimo’s attorneys have not responded to a request for comment.