I recently had a horrible experience trailering a prospective boarder to my stable. I took my time loading the horse and she was calm when I closed the trailer door. Going down the driveway at about two miles an hour, the horse somehow leapt over the breast bar and attempted to dive through the escape hatch, which was closed until she hit it. She broke her shoulder attempting to get out of the escape hatch and had to be put down while still wedged in the doorway. I am now wondering about the liability issue trailering horses. All boarders sign releases when the horse steps a foot on my property but until this incident I did not have them sign it prior to the horse arriving at the farm. What are my responsibilities here and what should I do in the future?
—Wendy via e-mail
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of the horse. Trailering is a high-risk activity, and your loss is not the first I have heard of. In answering your question, I’m going to ignore the liability issues if your trailer hit another vehicle, and confine my answer to what happens if the horse you’re hauling in your trailer is injured.
When transporting another person’s horse in your trailer, you have created what is called legally a “bailment.” You are responsible, as the bailor, to return the property to the bailee (property owner) in the same condition as you received it. Although there are some qualifications, you can think of it as a strict liability situation, where you are liable whether you are negligent or not. So in the above situation, where the facts that you presented do not indicate that you failed to properly care for this horse, you would still be liable for the damages this horse received.
Your liability is limited to the replacement cost of the horse and the veterinarian bills. If the horse’s value was $5,000 and $700 was incurred in vet bills, you would be liable to the owner for $5,700. Although lawsuits have argued that there should be damages for loss for the companionship of a pet, I am not aware of any court that has allowed it. This may change in the future, but so far, damages are limited to only the actual cash value. Pain and suffering do not apply.
Commercial carriers can have further limitations on damages. Because of the Interstate Commerce Commission, there are laws limiting the amount of damages that commercial carriers have to pay. This limitation should be specified on the bill of lading, which is required for all commercial carriers.
You can limit your liability through a release. This could be included in your regular boarding agreement, or in a specific transportation agreement. If you haul horses regularly for your boarders, then I would recommend including such a release in your boarding agreement, as this would be easier. Remembering to have your customers sign a transportation agreement each trip can be difficult. I would further recommend having any potential client, whether they are bringing their horses, or you are transporting them to your stable, sign the boarding agreement before you do anything with the horse.
“You are responsible. . .to return the [horse] to the property owner in the same condition...
You should also check out your insurance. Auto insurance, even commercial policies, can have exclusions for freight (a horse is freight) and loading and unloading accidents to people. A commercial farm policy can have an exclusion for anything involving a motor vehicle. As a result, you can find yourself in the position of finding trailer accidents not covered by either policy.