Horse & Buggy Law?

25 06 2009

Horses and buggies, horses and carriages, horses and wagons….they all evoke an image of yesteryear that most of us enjoy, especially us horse folks.  In fact, my groom and I were whisked away from our wedding reception in a beautiful carriage driven by a gorgeous Belgian draft horse named Tinkerbell. 

But then reality strikes and I get a call from a potential client [we’ll call her Jane] who owns a horse and carriage company and who has a problem.  She is a retired horse trainer who now runs a little carriage business and loves it.  She goes to the town square and gives carriage rides on holidays and trailers her horse and carriage to private parties and other engagements. 

Back at Christmastime she was working the town square giving sweet Christmas carriage tours of the historic district with her vintage carriage and her beautiful, bombproof Percheron mare named Angel.  Christmas music was playing and snow was falling.  It was a picture perfect sight and her passengers were mesmerized by the beautiful weather, the beautiful horse and the beautiful carriage. 

Unfortunately things sometimes happen that we don’t anticipate.  A local n’er do well was buzzing down main street on his scooter (of course because he had so many DWI convictions that he had lost his driver’s license), his shoes held together with duct tape and his attitude even more ragged.  He decided it would be really funny to pop a wheelie on his scooter directly in front of Angel.  Angel and the carriage were patiently waiting at a stop light when the miscreant popped his wheelie and screamed at her like a madman.

Being the saint that she is, Angel did not bolt or rear or buck.  She jumped to the side because the noise and quick movement startled her and when a 2000 lb Percheron jumps to the side, it’s a big movement.  Most fortunately, the passengers in the carriage were fine and Angel was fine.  However, the carriage and Jane weren’t so fine because the jolt snapped one of the rear vintage wooden carriage wheels in half.   Jane was the consummate professional, checking first to assure the well being of her customers and helping them out of the carriage once she confirmed they were fine.  Then Jane went to Angel and unhitched her from the carriage and checked her out physically.  Angel was fine.  She has seen lots of scary things before and been through extensive desensitization in her training to be a carriage horse, but even the most bombproof horses get startled every now and then.  Jane was proud of Angel for doing no more than jumping to the side and talked sweetly to her to let her know she had done a good job. 

Jane got the wagon home on her trailer and called me to see if there was anything she could do to recover the cost of the repairs to the wagon from the thoughtless bum who thought it would be “funny” to scare her horse to death and risk the lives of lots of people in the process.

I asked her about the perpetrator and she told me he was the town bum of sorts, told me about the duct tape on his shoes, his multiple DWI convictions and that he was a transient, living with friends until they kicked him out and then moving on to the next one willing to take him in.  I told her that wasn’t good news because I was 99.9% sure he didn’t have any liability insurance coverage and she agreed.  We talked about the possibility of perhaps his having some liability coverage if his scooter were insured, but she didn’t think his scooter was big enough to even require license tags, much less insurance.  In NC there was a bill pending that would require insurance on scooters 50cc or larger but it was pulled from the floor of the legislature back in April 2009 for lack of support.  So no liability insurance coverage on him is likely available to help, we assume. 

Next I ask Jane about her business insurance policy.  She apologizes and admits that she let it lapse a few months before the incident.  I reminded her that it was SO important for her protection that she have a policy, most especially since she was carrying around customers who could theoretically get hurt.  Also, certain types of policies would cover damage to the carriage in addition to liability coverage for injuries.   Yes, there are statutory protections for equine professionals that attempt to limit your liability for equine related damage and injury, but those statutory protections aren’t foolproof and you should not rely on those statutes to protect you from liability for something your horse might do, whether or not it’s the horse’s fault.  Find a knowledgeable insurance agent familiar with equine issues, describe your activities in detail to him or her and buy as much coverage as you can afford.  Frequently the cost to buy twice as much coverage is NOT twice the premium.  Insurance gets cheaper per dollar of coverage as you get more and more, so price out the big amounts of coverage, not just the small amounts, and you’ll be surprised at how affordable more coverage can be!

So, unfortunately, it looks like Jane is going to have to foot the bill for the damage to her carriage on her own.  She could sue the guy, but he has no assets or job and so that lawsuit would likely be a waste of her time and effort, not to mention filing fees, even if she were to sue him in small claims court where you can easily represent yourself.

Moral of this story:  Be sure to have lots of insurance coverage (as much as you can afford) if you engage in any type of business that involves horses and remember to be sure you have property damage coverage in addition to liability coverage.  When they are secured properly, one will pay for damage to things and the other will pay for damage to people or businesses.

Dottie Burch

dburch@rl-law.com

Ragsdale Liggett PLLC (www.rl-law.com)

(919) 881-2206

**Note:  Of course the names and facts of any situation described above have been altered slightly to protect my client’s privacy and preserve any privileged information.

If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. You can check out our firm’s Equine Law Group at www.rl-law.com if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories and information, this blog is also an advertisement for legal services.  I have to tell you that in bold, says the State Bar.

Happy riding and be careful out there!

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