I have a boarder who has not paid her board for the month even though I have contacted her and was assured I would be paid. Is it illegal for me to trailer her horse to her house and leave him there? What should I do if she does not pay me and simply walks away from the horse (he really has no value other than sentimental)?
—Ellen Sandstrom, R.I.
Unfortunately, this is a common problem for boarding stables, and the solution involves both preplanning and what you do when it happens.
The two steps to planning ahead for this situation involve your boarding contract and getting advance payment. Your boarding contract should specify exactly what will happen if your boarder fails to pay you and the fact that you will take advantage of every legal remedy to get payment, including selling the horse at auction. The second part of preplanning is asking boarders for both the first and last month’s board. By having the last month’s board, you’ll have thirty days of board paid while you’re trying to resolve this problem. Don’t allow any of this time period to be used by the horse owner to stall the proceeding.
When you took this horse in, you made an agreement (whether in writing or not) to take care of her horse. Legally, boarding is a type of contract called a bailment. In bailments, the person taking care of the property is usually strictly liable for any damages that may happen to the property. The risk for you in dropping off the horse in her front yard is that you would be responsible for the horse if something happened to it.
To give you an example, let’s say someone asked you to take care of a famous painting, and agreed to pay you for that privilege. You agreed and took care of the painting. When she stops paying you, you decide to return the painting to her, and leave it on her front steps. One of the neighborhood children goes by, decides the painting makes a great target for his paint ball gun, and lets fire, destroying its value. You would be responsible for the damage the painting received and would have to pay for the damages.
One approach in dealing with this situation is to advise the late payer that you will be obtaining a court order that will allow you to sell the horse at auction, and that as soon as you receive that order, you will be taking the horse to auction. If the owner understands the risks associated with auctions, the owner will understand that there is a significant risk that the horse will be sold to a meat buyer. That might encourage the owner to deal with the situation, although you need to remember that, more likely than not, the reason the horse owner doesn’t pay you is because she doesn’t have any money.
State law nearly always controls this issue (the writer of this question lives in Rhode Island, the only state that does not). Usually the law provides that, with proper notice, the boarding stable can sell the horse at auction, keeping the money that it receives for its outstanding bill. You need to return any money left over.
“...the owner will understand that there is a significant risk that the horse will be sold to a meat buyer.”
If the statute requires that you get a court order, remember that you need to explain to the court clerk that the fastest process that the clerk can suggest is important, as the horse in question is continuing to eat and costs you money on a daily basis. This is different from the normal situation, in which a garage is attempting to seize a car that someone hasn’t paid the repair bill. The car doesn’t eat anything while the court proceeding is going on, and, unfortunately for you, the clerk is probably more used to garages than stables.
Therefore, the best approach to dealing with this situation involves a combination of preplanning and fast action when you aren’t paid. Plan ahead by getting that extra board payment to cover your costs during the time that will pass between when you realize you’re not going to get paid and when you can sell the horse. The second part of this is promptly dealing with the situation when it arises. “I’ll pay in five days” is not acceptable because it just cost you five days of time if the person doesn’t pay. Make sure as little time passes as possible while meeting the statutory requirements. Know ahead of time what your state’s statute is, so you know exactly what you need to do in these situations.