LIABILITY OF THE BOARDING STABLE FOR INJURIES TO ITS CUSTOMER'S HORSES

 

Julie I. Fershtman, Attorney at Law

 

Could the following scenario happen to you?

Bill boards a mare at a stable. One morning the stable called Bill with bad news. Last night a new employee at the stable accidentally placed the mare in a stall next to a stallion. The stallion had a history, unknown to the new employee, of being fierce when stabled next to mares. The stallion broke down the wall and attacked, nearly killing the mare. Bill's veterinarian advised him that the mare would recover, but the scars and tears will permanently end her performance career. Upon inspection of the stall, Bill discovered that the wall separating this stallion from his mare was extremely thin and poorly patched from other mishaps the stallion caused in the past. Bill now wants to sue the stable. Does he have a case?

This article briefly examines some of the liabilities for injuries sustained by horses kept at boarding stables.

Legal Duties of a Boarding Stable

When a stable accepts a horse belonging to another for care and keeping -- regardless of whether the stable is a 2-horse or a 200-horse operation -- the law generally imposes a duty on the stable to use "reasonable care." In the eyes of the law, this means that the facility and its employees must use the degree of care that a prudent and careful stable would exercise in similar circumstances. Bill would assert that the stable fell short of this standard and should be liable (legally accountable) for the damages.

The stable's liability in the above example seems clear. The stable knew the stallion's history of terrorizing mares when placed in similar situations, and its employee placed the mare in a position of danger by stalling her next to the stallion.

The Stable's Defenses

Here are some defenses the stable might try to assert:

  • "It Was a Mistake." Negligence, by its most basic definition, means the failure to act reasonably. People or businesses could be negligent even if they had no intention of inflicting harm on someone's person or property. Therefore, a "mistake" will not be a valid defense to a claim that the stable was negligent.
  • "The Employee Did It -- Not the Stable." What if the stable argues that its newest employee, who apparently was unaware of the stallion's history, should take the blame? That defense will likely fail, as well. In most cases, a stable is responsible for the negligent acts its employees commit on the job. Also, the law in the applicable state might charge the employee with knowledge that the employer had -- such as the knowledge that the stallion was a hazard to mares -- even if this was not in fact the case.
  • "The Stallion Owner Is to Blame." The stable might assert that the stallion's owner should take the blame because the stallion, not the stable, inflicted the injuries. Even if the stable could hold the stallion owner accountable for some of the problem, this will not completely relieve the stable from liability in this situation. Here, the stable knew of the stallion's dangerousness and arguably could have prevented the problem.

Damages

What damages could Bill stand to recover if he succeeds? If the mare died, he would, at a minimum, try to collect the mare's value immediately before the injury plus any out-of-pocket expenses he incurred while attempting to bring her back to health, such as veterinary fees, hauling fees, and others. If his mare survived, Bill would seek the amount of money that the mare had decreased in value due to the incident, plus (depending on the circumstances) the value of any lost foals or anticipated net earnings in races or shows as well as his out-of-pocket expenses. These are examples of some of the damages Bill would try to recover.

Do the Equine Liability Act Apply?

Unlikely. The 38 equine activity liability laws across the country (as of March 1997) generally apply to injuries and damages when people -- not horses -- are injured while participating in an "equine activity."

Damage Control

What preventive measures can be taken? Here are a few:

  • Insurance. Insurance may not prevent the problem, but it could spare the stable the burden of hiring a lawyer or settling this dispute using its own funds. Many boarding stables are surprised to learn that the standard provisions in their commercial general liability insurance policies offer no protection for this situation. However, stables that purchase "care, custody, and control" insurance would likely be protected. "Care, custody, and control" insurance is designed to cover certain unintentional and allegedly-negligent acts from which a horse in injured while in the care, custody and control of the stable.
  • Careful Training of Employees. Since, as a general matter, employers are legally responsible for the negligent acts their employees commit on the job, stables should make every effort to train their workers well.
  • Boarding Contracts. Can boards, such as Bill, release stables from liability for the consequences of the stable's own negligence? The answer usually depends on the law of the state where the stable is situated. In many states, customers can legally release a stable from liability arising from the consequences of the stable's ordinary negligence.

Conclusion

In conclusion, please keep the following ideas in mind:

  1. Negligence is not necessarily intentional wrongdoing. Even carelessness, in the eyes of the law, can create liability.

  2. The concept of negligence does not apply only to large stables. Those that board just a few horses could find themselves negligent if they fail to give reasonable care to a horse in its care, custody and control.

  3. The stable's commercial general equine liability insurance policy does not typically cover injuries or losses to horses in its care, custody and control unless the stable purchased extra coverage designed to apply to this type of situation.

 

This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, contact a knowledgeable attorney. About the Author Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney serving the horse industry, who has won national awards for her equine law expertise. Her biography is published in Who's Who in American Law. Her speaking engagements in early 1999 include the American Morgan Horse Association Annual Convention in Dearborn, MI (2/12), Equine Spectacular in Scottsdale, AS (2/13-2/14), and the Hoosier Horse Fair in Indianapolis, IN (4/17-4/18). She can be reached at (248) 644-8645. Ms. Fershtman is the author of the nationally-acclaimed book, Equine Law & Horse Sense, which sells for $17.95 + $3 s/h (MI residents add 6% sales tax). To order, contact Horses & The Law Publishing at (800) 662-2210 or send check or money order to Horses & The Law Publishing, P.O. Box 250696,Franklin, MI 48025-0696.

 


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