Top horse trainer appeals $370k payout to paralysed rider

Aspiring jockey Sophia Malthus was left paralysed at just 19 after falling off a horse at one of...
Aspiring jockey Sophia Malthus was left paralysed at just 19 after falling off a horse at one of Stephen McKee's stables. Photo: Supplied
One of New Zealand's top racehorse trainers is appealing against his sentence after being ordered to pay $370,000 in reparation to a stable hand - who had hoped to become a jockey - who was left a tetraplegic.

In the first sentencing of its kind in New Zealand, Stephen McKee was held responsible for Sophia Malthus' paralysis after the then 19-year-old came off a horse at one of McKee's stables near Ardmore in Auckland during 2016.

Mckee, who has some 31 years of experience in the industry, had pleaded guilty to one charge of exposing a person to risk of serious harm or death after a WorkSafe NZ investigation.

He was sentenced in the Auckland District Court by Judge Noel Sainsbury in August and is now appealing the figure the judge came to when awarding reparation to Malthus.

Today, his lawyer Paul Wicks QC questioned the sentence for his client in the High Court at Auckland before Justice Grant Powell.

McKee was ordered to pay $262,000 in consequential loss reparation because of Malthus' inability to work, $110,000 for emotional harm damage, fined $30,000 and ordered to pay court costs of $3000.

During the sentencing hearing, however, Judge Sainsbury had grappled with the question of what full compensation was in the potential precedent setting case.

"What should a 19-year-old be compensated for basically never moving again for the rest of her life?"

"What is the dollar figure for that? Nearest million would be nice," he asked both counsel.

Stephen McKee, centre, outside the Auckland District Court next to his lawyer Paul Wicks QC and...
Stephen McKee, centre, outside the Auckland District Court next to his lawyer Paul Wicks QC and behind the WorkSafe prosecutors. Photo: NZ Herald
Malthus was injured while working part-time on minimum wage.

"It is speculation to assume for the purposes of reparation that she would work 40 hours and when that might happen," Wicks said today.

Justice Powell said that was a difficult submission to accept, given Malthus was in her first job and hoping to advance her career.

The High Court judge reserved his decision.

At sentencing, Judge Sainsbury also criticised the ACC compensation system which caps the compensation for consequential losses at 80 per cent of a person's income.

"I don't think any other living, breathing person on this planet would say that's fair compensation, but that's the system we've got," Judge Sainsbury said.

He added it was "deeply insulting" for someone who was injured while on the minimum wage to have compensation measured as if they would've remained on minimum wage for the rest of their life.

"This level of reparation can never be seen as reflective of the worth of Sophia Malthus," he said.

At the time of the incident, Malthus, now in her early 20s, was employed by McKee as a stable hand but had dreams of becoming an apprentice jockey and racing thoroughbreds.

While she had a small amount of riding experience Malthus had never ridden a thoroughbred working racehorse before the day of the accident.

McKee had never seen Malthus ride but allowed her into the saddle of a 3-year-old thoroughbred.

The horse, which has name suppression, was regarded as generally well mannered and didn't have a tendency to bolt, spit and rear, the court heard at sentencing.

Wearing a helmet, vest and riding boots and accompanied by an apprentice jockey on another horse, Malthus rode out onto the training track and completed the first lap at a trot.

Malthus then took the horse on a second lap at a canter but lost control.

"Unfortunately this led to panic," Judge Sainsbury said. "An inexperienced rider reacting to the horse only made things worse."

Those around the track attempted to shut the gates to keep the horse from bolting, but the animal gained speed and headed straight for the perimeter fence.

"It appears she hit the fence, Judge Sainsbury said. "Alternatively, she may have been struck by one of the horse's hooves."

The horse was spooked during a practice session and Sophia Malthus was flung into a fence. Photo...
The horse was spooked during a practice session and Sophia Malthus was flung into a fence. Photo:Givealitte
Malthus broke the C5 vertebrae in her spine and has been told she will never walk again.

The accident has left her with almost no sensation or motor skills from the collarbone down and she now requires constant care while living with her parents.

The WorkSafe investigation concluded McKee knew or should have known of the hazards and risks the young rider faced on his horse and track.

It also found Malthus lacked the formal training required to be put in charge of a working racehorse and hadn't ridden horses before at a gallop.

Judge Sainsbury said: "It's a tragedy for everyone, I understand that."

Malthus, according to her Instagram page, has recently become a speaker at health and wellness workshops.

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