Give me back my horse!

10 03 2010

As I continue my representation of horse owners in North Carolina, I am beginning to realize how often possession of the horse is the issue, whether it’s getting possession, finding someone to take possession or keeping someone from taking possession – and how third parties unwittingly get stuck in the middle of these disputes and undoubtedly wish they hadn’t!

Recently I was engaged by a very nice couple from the northeast to help them get their horse back from their trainer.  The trainer had moved the horse and they weren’t sure where the horse was.  The relationship with the trainer had deteriorated significantly into screaming matches between the owners and the trainer, with the precious daughter who loved and showed the horse getting caught in the crossfire.  The couple was upset, said that the trainer had threatened them that they would never see their horse again and they wanted me to get an emergency court order forcing the trainer to give up possession of the horse to them.

Now all of us who are “horse people” know how emotional we get about our mounts.  We love them, probably too much, and treat them sometimes like they are a pet or a child, which we know objectively that they aren’t – but we can’t help it.  So, when someone threatens to take our “baby” from us, we flip out.  It’s understandable, but it’s something that all of us must guard against because that kind of raw emotion causes us to do things that aren’t rational and may not be in the best interests of the horse or ourselves, not to mention others caught in the fray.

Some trigger-happy lawyers might burst into the courtroom, spending tons of the clients’ money and causing a storm of activity and emotion.  And that fuss might make the clients feel better or vindicated for a little while.  But once the reality of the cost and the emotional exhaustion set in they will probably realize that the drama wasn’t really necessary – 99% of the time.  And it’s likely that a court is NOT going to order the horse returned without substantial proof – proof which is often hard to produce on a moment’s notice.  For example, in the case I’m talking about, the trainer had possession of the horse’s registration papers and the Bill of Sale where the owners purchased the horse.  It takes a while to re-create these kinds of documents and they are what you’re going to need to convince a judge to order a horse returned to you – maybe.  If the trainer can show that you owe him or her boarding fees or training fees then there is a good argument that the trainer may have a lien on the animal to the extent of those unpaid fees.   Such a lien will likely cause a judge not to order the animal returned until the debt underlying that lien is paid in full.

Back to the story.  After I got all the facts and was formally engaged by the owners I got the name and number for the trainer with whom they were battling and just called him, telling him I had been retained by the owners and was on a peace mission to see if we couldn’t get the matter resolved without having to get nastier than things already were.  Lo and behold, the trainer was a very nice guy from the western part of the state and really felt bad about the whole situation.   I was able to defuse the situation such that my clients paid the past due fees and he had a neutral driver deliver the horse to a neutral place for the owners to pick up.  It all worked out fine without a huge legal battle.  Saved everyone a ton of money on legal fees, which is always good, even for me.  Folks think lawyers just want to run up legal bills but most of us really don’t, because if you get what you need without doing that, you’ll recommend us to the next person who needs help.  And lawyers that do “run up the bill” usually end up with clients who are very unhappy and that’s not good for the lawyer, no matter how much money is involved.

The bottom line in the situation I was handling was that the owners were from the northeast and from a very different background where negotiations and communications generally were handled differently than they are typically handled by trainers native to North Carolina.  Each had unwittingly made the other mad without intending to and then things just snowballed because of what they both thought the other one was doing or meant to do.

Lessons to be learned:

1.  Be aware of your audience when communicating about your horse and don’t hesitate to make your expectations clear up front in a gentle and friendly way.  It’s really true that, as we say in the South, “you get more with honey than vinegar.”

2.  Put things in writing, for heaven’s sake.  I do believe that the horse industry is one of the most undocumented industries in the world, for various reasons, but oral agreements are recipes for disaster that you can easily avoid.  Better to have a lawyer help you document, but even a handwritten note signed by both sides is often better than nothing written at all.

3.  Keep in YOUR possession the original (or at least a copy, if the trainer must hold the original) of your horse’s ownership papers (registration papers, Bill of Sale, Coggins, etc.).

4.  Remember the horse is not a pet, not a child and try to maintain some sense of objectivity when dealing with disputes involving your barn, your trainer, etc.  If you can’t seem to maintain a sense of professionalism, call me at 919-881-2206 or another equine lawyer for help in handling the matter.  Oftentimes the lawyer, although an expense for you, can resolve the matter more quickly that you will be able to and sometimes for very little in the way of fees.  My fees in handling the return of the horse described above were less than $500.

So the happy ending to the story is that the trainer got paid, the owners and their sweet daughter got the horse back and no one spent a fortune on lawyers!

Dottie Burch

dburch@rl-law.com

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

(919) 881-2206

**Note:  of course the facts and names in the above story have been altered somewhat to protect my client’s privacy and preserve any privileged information.  But the essence of the story is there and the lessons to be learned remain the same.

If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some general questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com.  I used to answer quick questions for free if I could, but I am getting so many calls for free legal advice that I am having to start charging a little something for an initial chat! A good problem to have, I guess 🙂 Starting January 1, 2019, I’m going to be charging $99 for a 30 minute general question session. You won’t be engaging me as your lawyer and we won’t talk specific names because that requires conflicts checks, etc., but frequently I can help folks a lot in 30 minutes. Can’t guarantee it, but usually I can at least give you some direction or general thoughts about a general type of situation. 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.

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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 general questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com.  I used to answer quick questions for free if I could, but I am getting so many calls for free legal advice that I am having to start charging a little something for an initial chat! A good problem to have, I guess 🙂 Starting January 1, 2019, I’m going to be charging $99 for a 30 minute general question session. You won’t be engaging me as your lawyer and we won’t talk specific names because that requires conflicts checks, etc., but frequently I can help folks a lot in 30 minutes. Can’t guarantee it, but usually I can at least give you some direction or general thoughts about a general type of situation. 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!





Ponies on the loose!

11 06 2009

So, my name is Dottie Burch and I’m a business and real estate lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina who loves horses, has horses and who has ended up doing so much horse related legal work that has decided to go ahead and make it a practice area for me and the firm.  Thus the birth of the Ragsdale Liggett PLLC Equine Law Group.

Don’t know how often I will blog cause I’m thankfully busy at work, but I’ll put horsey related stuff up here that I think might be helpful to folks in the horse world.

The other day I got a call from someone who said her friend’s horses got out of the pasture and she was very distressed.  Apparently a car was driving down the road, saw the horses running around, but failed to slow down at all.  One of the loose horses, a pony, darted out in front of the car and was struck by the car.  Unfortunately the impact broke the pony’s leg and she had to be put down.  I don’t know if the pony was a fancy, expensive pony or a family pet.  The car that hit the pony was damaged too and the driver wanted the pony’s owner to pay for the damage to her car.  Of course she felt like this request was adding insult to injury because she had already lost her pony.  The girl emailing me wanted to know if her friend was liable for the car damage or whether the driver was liable for the pony’s injury & ultimate death.

What a horrible situation!  We all live in fear that our precious horses will get loose and get hurt, so I certainly understand the owner’s distress.  I would be devastated, I know.   Unfortunately in NC and every other state I know of, you are responsible for keeping your animals contained, whether they be dogs, cats, pigs, cows, horses or any other pet or farm animal.  If they get loose and do damage, you’re responsible and you should alert your liability insurance company if anything like this ever happens.  Some might say just pay the damage to the car yourself and don’t report it to the insurance company, but that’s risky because what if the driver develops an “injury” later that he or she attributes to the accident and you handled things on your own?   Then you’re potentially exposed for all damages from the accident personally if your insurance policy has an exclusion for things you don’t report to them on a timely basis (most do).  If you report it, you may get some insurance “points” but the driver will have to sign a release before they’ll get their money to fix their car and that release protects you from ever hearing from that driver again, so it’s worth it to call your insurance company 99% of the time.

Now, in this particular fact situation the driver was potentially negligent in not slowing down when he saw horses running all around the road.  In NC we call negligence by the person who got hurt “contributory negligence” and in NC if a victim is contributorily negligent, they are not supposed to be able to recover anything from you.  It’s supposed to be a “bar to recovery” by the victim.  As a practical matter, though, judges and juries don’t make it a total bar to recovery most of the time.  Usually they just subjectively attribute a percentage of the fault between the victim and the main cause of the injury and that reduces whatever damages the victim gets.  So if a judge or jury found that this driver was 50% negligent and the horse owner was 50% negligent, although technically the driver should get nothing because of the rules about contributory negligence, the driver might instead get half of his damages paid for by the horse owner (or his insurance company).

So, moral of the story – be sure your horses are well contained, carry good insurance with high limits (as much as you can afford) and if you see horses running all around a road or highway, call the owner if you know them or 911 if you don’t and SLOW DOWN as much as is safe under the circumstances.

Another horsey story coming next week – this one is about a horse and buggy, so tune in!

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 general questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com.  I used to answer quick questions for free if I could, but I am getting so many calls for free legal advice that I am having to start charging a little something for an initial chat! A good problem to have, I guess 🙂 Starting January 1, 2019, I’m going to be charging $99 for a 30 minute general question session. You won’t be engaging me as your lawyer and we won’t talk specific names because that requires conflicts checks, etc., but frequently I can help folks a lot in 30 minutes. Can’t guarantee it, but usually I can at least give you some direction or general thoughts about a general type of situation. 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.

Have a great weekend.