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Most-Asked Questions of Horse Lawyers

By: Rebecca Sweat

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A 20-year-old woman sued the owners of a riding stable in Arizona after she was injured while riding one of their horses when the bridle broke. The court ruled in favor of the woman, saying the stable was negligent in providing faulty equipment.

A person who bought a mare at a Kentucky auction sued the seller when a blood test later revealed that the horse had been given tranquilizers to make the animal seem calm during the sale. The court determined that fraud was committed and awarded a refund of the purchase price to the buyer.

Riding injuries and disputes between horse buyers and sellers are fairly common. Often when these types of situations arise, the parties involved consult an "equine lawyer," an attorney who specializes in lawsuits concerning horses. Here are some of the most common questions asked of equine lawyers, and how they typically counsel their clients:

Who is liable if my horse is hit by a car?

The answer depends on the law of the state and how the collision happened, says Julie Fershtman, an attorney in Bingham Farms, Mich., specializing in the horse industry, and author of More Equine Law & Horse Sense (Horses & The Law Publishing, 2000).

"Some states have laws that make the owner or keeper automatically liable for damages when a horse escapes and collides with an auto," she says. "Other states require the one with the damage to prove that the owner or keeper was negligent. In other states or regions of states with 'open range laws,' it's truly 'drive at your own risk,' and the owner or keeper typically has no liability when a wandering horse collides with a car."

If you own a horse and you want to hold the driver responsible for your horse's injury or loss, Fershtman says the law typically requires you to prove that the driver was negligent and could have avoided hitting the horse.

What recourse do I have if I buy a horse that turns out to be unsound?

"If the seller did something to willfully misrepresent the horse, such as conceal problems with the horse through the use of medications, legal recourse is available," says Mike Meuser, an attorney in Lexington, Ky., whose practice is largely concentrated in equine law.

Legal remedy could include rescinding the sale completely and awarding a refund of the purchase price to the buyer, or granting a partial refund of an overpayment on the purchase price. On the other hand, if the horse was sound at the time of the sale but later develops a problem - perhaps due to a bad trailer ride, improper feed, or something else that the buyer did - the law would not help the buyer in those circumstances.

Who is responsible for medical bills if someone gets hurt riding my horse?

Liability for horse-inflicted injuries is largely covered by equine activity liability laws, found in 44 states. Most of the laws allow an "equine activity sponsor or equine professional" to be held responsible if they provide tack or equipment that they knew, or should have known, was faulty and the fault causes harm to the one partaking in an equine activity; or if they improperly match a horse with a rider or fail to determine the equine activity participant's ability to safely manage the horse, based on representations of his or her abilities, Fershtman says.

In the states without an equine liability law, the standard of liability is negligence. "Negligence essentially means that the one you are trying to hold responsible acted unreasonably. Only if the injured person can establish legal liability is there any obligation, in a legal sense, to pay for medical bills, or anything beyond that," Fershtman explains.

What recourse do I have if my veterinarian injures my horse during treatment?

If you believe your veterinarian injured or killed your horse, you have the legal right to file a veterinary malpractice suit against him. Such lawsuits, however, are rarely practical - at least for the average pleasure horse. If your horse died, many courts will grant you the fair market value of the horse at the time of death. If your horse survived, you may only be awarded the amount of money in which the horse has decreased in value.

"After you factor in attorney fees and other costs of a lawsuit, the amount required to go to court could far outweigh the amount of money you may eventually recover," Meuser says.

On the other hand, the death or injury of a valuable race or show horse may be worth going to court over. In addition to the fair market value of your horse, you also may be awarded the likely value of lost race or show profits, and/or the cost of procuring a substitute horse for the interests or purposes served by the horse.

An alternative to lawsuits, Meuser says, is to challenge the veterinarian's license by filing a complaint with the board or agency that oversees veterinarians in your state.

Can my stable hold my horse as "collateral" until I pay the bill?

"Many states have stablemen's lien laws on the books that allow stables, under certain circumstances, to claim a lien on the boarded horse and to insist on continued possession of the horse until the debt is paid," Fershtman notes. The owner of the stable would, however, need to go to court and get a valid, enforceable judgment first before he or she could take possession of the horse as collateral.

My spouse and I are divorcing, what happens if we both want our horse?

"Legally, horses are considered to be personal property, and in a divorce, they're going to be disputed like any other piece of property - the lot at the lake, the television, the house, the car, etc.," Meuser says. Normally the judge will grant one party the animal and then the other will get the fair market value of the animal.

What recourse do I have if I am dissatisfied with the services of a professional horse trainer?

"Generally speaking," Fershtman says, "virtually anybody who renders a service risks being sued for improper performance of that service." She says any of the following legal theories could apply:

  • Breach of contract. A lawsuit might claim that the trainer broke the terms of a contract by failing to keep the horse in training and, possibly, by failing to perform the training services properly.

  • Negligence. Depending on the facts, a lawsuit also could claim that the trainer gave negligent care to the horse.

  • Deceptive trade practice laws. Some states have consumer protection laws that protect consumers who claim they were deceived into spending money on items or services.

    Which legal theories apply depends on the facts surrounding your particular case and the laws in your state.

    When it comes to equine law, it pays to be informed before you find yourself in the embroiled in a messy lawsuit. If you've got a serious legal concern relating to your horse, or to the purchase of a horse, consult an attorney who practices equine law. For a referral, call your state bar association.

    Whether you own a horse or just work in the horse industry," Meuser says, "you're always better off knowing your legal rights and responsibilities."

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