Frisky Felines

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Like most barns, I have a few barn cats around to keep my rodent population down. These cats are mostly people friendly. My problem is that one of them ran through the ring and spooked one of my client’s horses. That client fell and broke her wrist. So far, she has been very amenable to it and laughed the incident off as part of riding. But what if I had had a client that wasn’t so happy about it? What are my legal responsibilities when it comes to barn cats? I can’t control them 24/7.

I think you’ve come up with a unique question. I’ve never seen a case that comes anywhere near this type of fact pattern, so coming up with an answer is difficult. There are quite a few cases involving horses and dogs, but there are two significant differences to a case involving cats. The first is that nearly every case involving dogs also involve leash laws, and I’m not aware of any that involve a dog owned by the stable. The second is the fact that people expect dogs to be under control, while cats are expected to be their own bosses and not subject to our control.

I would assume that if a state had an equine liability act, this situation would be covered. We’re dealing with the inherent nature of horses to spook combined with the inherent nature of cats to go wherever they like. The only issue that I could see under the equine liability act would be whether the barn owner knew of the problem and could reasonably control the situation, which puts us back to the question of what would be the result under the normal laws of negligence, without an equine liability act.

The question under negligence would be whether the barn owner is responsible for the situation. This leads us to two separate questions: One is whether the barn owner is aware of the problem and the second is whether the barn owner can control the situation at a reasonable cost.

A stable is only responsible for fixing problems when the stable is actually aware (or that a reasonable person would have been aware) of the problem. An example of this is a case involving a rider being injured in an indoor arena when her horse stumbled in a sinkhole caused by a leaking pipe. Because the stable was not aware that the pipe was leaking, it was not responsible for the injury. If the stable had been aware of the problem, then the stable would have been legally liable for fixing the pipe and, if it failed to do so, the barn would have been liable for the rider’s injury.

In your case, I’m not sure that it would have been reasonable before this accident to expect the results that actually occurred. That being said, an accident has occurred, you’re aware of the problem and you need to think about how you can deal with it. So what would be a reasonable solution?

Cats are necessary on a farm to control the rodent population, and even if you decide to remove the cats, other feral cats would likely move in and it’s beyond most anyone’s ability to control them.

This leads us to the next question: Can you stop the cats from entering arenas while horses are present? If your cats are like mine, then the answer is probably no. So to effectively control cats from going into the arenas seems unlikely.

My thoughts on how to reduce your risk for future accidents involve two separate approaches. The first is training horses in your barn to spook in place—a technique used by John Lyons and others that trains horses to stand still while spooking, rather than running and jumping. The second would be to get a sign that read, “Warning! Cat racetrack! Cat’s crossing at high speed.” A humorous approach to remind your clients of the problem will hopefully make them more aware of the situation.

Summing up your legal situation, this accident would not appear to involve much potential for liability on your part. If, however, the situation causes another accident, the potential for liability increases.