Your mare is pregnant, but she's mated with the wrong stallion, and now the legal nightmare begins. If it's a case of a roaming Romeo, who is responsible for the mare's veterinary and foaling or abortion expenses? What if the mare is a valuable show jumper or was to be bred to a different, better stallion and has now lost a valuable year or breeding season?
What happens if a meandering mare visits the neighboring stallion? How can the sire be accurately proven? Is the stallion owner owed a stud fee even though the breeding was unintended? Can the stallion owner refuse to sign a breeder's certificate, not wanting registration records to reflect the offspring of an inferior mare? Who's responsible for veterinary bills and damages for loss of use if either the mare or the stallion is injured during the breeding process?
Though laws differ from state to state, here are some general guidelines for handling such situations:
Paying the Price
When an inadvertent breeding is against the wishes of an owner, the aggrieved party may demand compensation. If the horse owners can't settle their differences, their only recourse is to battle it out in civil court.
"Theoretically, if the stallion can be identified, and some negligence on the part of the stallion owner or whoever was keeping the stallion for the owner is established, then presumably the mare's owner can recover from the responsible party whatever damages can be proved to the court," says Don Pontious, legal director for the United States Trotting Association.
Those damages could range from veterinary bills, to loss of use, to loss of projected income.
In turn, a stallion owner might collect compensation from the owner of a wandering mare for injuries or for a stud fee. However, the stallion owner probably will be less likely to collect damages just from the mating itself.
"The stallion owner must prove that as a consequence of this mating and the consequence of the birth of the foal that he has suffered a financial loss," explains Pontious. "That could be difficult. There would be relatively few cases where just the birth of a foal would bring about identifiable damages for the stallion owner although the court might award some nominal amount just because it was against his wishes."
While a stallion owner may be tempted to refuse to sign a mating certificate pending settlement, some registries will, under certain circumstances, register the foal anyway.
Who Is At Fault?
Before determining what the damages are, the court first wants evidence of who was responsible for the accidental breeding. Damaged fences, gates left open or corral fences that do not contain the horses, could provide that evidence. "By just putting a stallion too close to the wrong horses, a stallion owner is encouraging the stallion to break loose, which puts more of a burden on the stallion owner to keep him well confined," says Norman Berliner, a California attorney who handles equine cases.
Liability due to irresponsibility also might be proven when the owner or employees of a breeding barn breeds the wrong stallion to the wrong mare. If the mare and/or stallion were boarded somewhere other than the owner's property when the breeding occurred, the court may find the barn owners responsible for any damages. But just having the horse in the barn's possession is not enough for a presumption of liability. "You have to show that the barn was somehow negligent in providing adequate facilities or that the gate was left ajar," Pontious says.
Pressing the Claim
There are no specific laws that govern equine enterprises. However, like other legal actions involving damages to personal property, horse owners should gather as much evidence as possible to support their claims. "You want to know the basics: Who owned the horses? Under what circumstances were they quartered? Who was responsible for quartering? Did you have just an oral agreement for board or did you enter into a written agreement?
"Obviously, if you have anything in writing, (the court or attorneys) would like to have a copy of that; sometimes those written agreements fix responsibility a little more clearly than just an oral understanding," Pontius says.
Keep a good record of all your mare's prenatal and foaling expenses, including veterinary bills, prenatal supplements or special feeds.
Many claimants may represent themselves in small claims court. "Assuming it's not a fancy horse but a pleasure horse, the owner should file in small claims court or maybe municipal court where you don't need an attorney. You just fill out a complaint – it'd probably be negligence, injury to personal property – and then you file an action," says Shannon Evans, a Nevada attorney,
It could be difficult for some horse owners to find an attorney to represent them. "Plaintive attorneys," explains Evans, "usually work on a contingency basis, meaning they don't get paid unless you get a verdict or settlement, then they get a cut out of that. So unless you have a pretty good horse and are going to get a pretty good settlement, it would be hard to find an attorney, because they're not interested unless they're going to get some money."
Those who do seek legal representation may turn to their family lawyer; even though the lawyer may not be versed in equine matters, he or she can provide suitable representation because the court action would be like that of any other business action. "You don't necessarily have to have somebody who has a great deal of expertise in equine law," Pontious says. "The lawyer might have to do a little bit of research, but most attorneys do a little research at some point in their representation of a client, anyways."
Alternatively, you could call your local bar association to see if there is a practitioner listed with some expertise in equine law. Ask for referrals from the owners of large training stables, equestrian facilities, or breeding barns, or from members of the local exhibitors, horse owners, or breeders associations.
Take the Money and Run
Going to court and even winning your case is no guarantee that the court will be generous in awarding damages. It could be very difficult to prove what your losses are.
"The courts never award speculative damages, meaning that you're guessing what you would have lost in the future, because you have no background to show what you normally earn with that horse," Evans says. "But if it was a racehorse or a show jumper that was earning money on the circuit and had already established a record, then you could say, for example, that for the past three years this mare had been earning this much. The same for a stallion, too, if he was injured."
A broodmare case could be a little tricky. "The court could say, 'We don't know what could happen. Maybe the baby will be fine and you can sell it. If you had bred the mare to another stallion, maybe the mare would have miscarried with that breeding. The court would think it is speculative for you to say that if you had bred the mare to the fancy stallion that you would have had an expensive foal," Evans says.
As for damages for a regular horse without an earning history, it probably would be just a loss of use. "What a judge or jury awards would almost be a roll of the dice," Evans adds.