Breach of Bailment
Liability for injuries to horses most often arises in the boarding/training or veterinary malpractice context. Having your horse at a boarding or training facility creates a bailment relationship between the stable and the horse owner. This relationship forms when a horse is delivered to the stable for a specific purpose, like board, training, and/or sale, pursuant to an express or implied contract. For instance, in exchange for $1,400 a month, the stable will care for and train the horse during the term of the agreement.
After the purpose of the agreement has been fulfilled or upon termination by either party, the horse must be redelivered to the horse owner in the same (or better) condition as what the horse was delivered to the trainer/boarding facility in.
Bailment law requires boarding facilities and trainers to exercise the degree of care that a person would exercise in the protection of his or her own property. A heightened level of care may be required by those facilities holding themselves out as having a higher degree of skill, education, or capability. For instance, a high-end, all-inclusive show facility may be held to a higher degree of care than a self-care boarding facility.
In most states, when a horse has been injured while in a stable’s care, the initial burden rests on the horse owner to show that he or she delivered the horse to the stable in good condition and the horse was returned in a damaged condition or not returned at all. When the horse owner has so proven, the burden is then shifted to the stable to show that it has used ordinary care in the storage and safekeeping of the horse.
If the stable is unable to meet this burden, the horse owner is entitled to be compensated for all losses that are the natural consequence and proximate result of the stable’s negligence. This can include vet bills, the horse’s fair market value, the difference in the horse’s fair market value prior to and after the injury, future earnings, and future breeding seasons.
In one case, an owner sent a filly to a trainer in preparation to be sold. One day, the trainer briefly worked the filly in a round pen and then handed her off to a groom to allow the filly some time to graze. The filly was wearing a halter with a 30-inch chain shank that was looped through the ring of the halter- as shown in the photograph.
While grazing, the filly’s hoof became entangled in the loop of the chain, she resisted, reared, and fell backwards. The halter had to be cut from the filly’s head and she was ultimately euthanized because of her injuries.
The filly owner sued the trainer for the market value of the filly and the training and veterinary expenses. At trial, the case came down to a battle of the experts. The trainer’s expert claimed that the way in which the lead shank was looped is custom in the industry when dealing with high strung horses. The filly’s owner’s expert opined that this was not at all typical in the industry because of the danger of this very event occurring. The jury agreed with the owner’s expert and awarded the filly’s owner the fair market value of the filly, including compensation for her future earnings.
In another case, the parties settled before reaching trial when a horse was injured by a manure spreader at a training facility. During morning chores, a stable employee parked a manure spreader in the aisle in preparation to clean stalls. Because the injured horse was particularly fractious when his stall was being cleaned, the employee decided to relocate the gelding to another stall during cleaning.
The stable employee walked the horse in-between the wall of the aisle and the manure spreader. While walking past, the horse kicks out and impales himself on the blades of the spreader. The stable employee immediately began to render first aid and called the veterinarian who sutured the laceration.
The laceration healed, however, because of the depth of the injury, the horse suffered from a fibrotic myopathy which caused an irregular gait at the walk. The horse was never able to return to his show career because of this condition, so the owner sued the stable and was able to recover compensation for what the horse’s fair market value was prior to the incident.
In another case, a trainer’s liability waiver prevented a horse owner from obtaining a judgement against him when the owner’s horse died while on a hot-walker. Just before the owner hauled his horse to the trainer, the trainer had him sign a boarding/training contract which included a release of liability provision relating to injuries which occur to the horse while under the trainer’s care.
Several months into the relationship, while attached to the hot-walker, the horse became spooked and impaled herself on a lead bar that extended from the machine. The mare died almost immediately, and the owner sued the trainer to recover her value. Although the court considered the hot-walker to be a “dangerous instrumentality”, the court ultimately did enforce the trainer’s liability waiver and dismissed the lawsuit.
Bailment law is extremely nuanced, especially in the horse boarding and training context. Questions based on specific situations should be directed towards a knowledgeable attorney licensed in your state.
Contact us today for an initial consultation if your horse has been injured while at a boarding or training facility or to discuss ways to reduce your exposure to liability if you are an equine professional yourself.
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