Nearly 22 years as a busy attorney have given me extensive experience representing boarding stables in lawsuits. I have learned that stables, regardless of their geography and size, seem to find themselves targeted with similar disputes and lawsuits. And many of them are preventable.
This article addresses three common types of lawsuits involving boarding stables and offers suggestions to help stables avoid problems in the future.
Dispute 1: The boarded horse is injured (or worse) at the stable, and the horse’s owner sues.
I have handled a few cases where this happened. In one, a horse was kicked in the leg by a pasture mate and had to be euthanized. In another case, a kick in the pasture rendered a horse too lame to compete in dressage events. Another lawsuit involved the stable arranging for a broodmare to be palpated before breeding, but the veterinarian who performed the procedure accidentally tore her, and she was later euthanized.
Stable managers have a few options to protect themselves against these risks:
1. Use well-worded liability releases (where allowed by law) pertaining to the horse. In one of my cases, a large boarding stable was sued by a boarder whose horse was attacked in the pasture and injured. The stable had no way of knowing of the incident, and the cuts were beneath the horse’s blanket. Because of the release included in the stable’s boarding contract, we quickly had the case dismissed.
Stables should not assume that the same release form that is designed to protect the stable against claims from injured people will apply to a claim involving an injured horse. Make sure the language accomplishes what you seek.
2. Buy insurance. The standard commercial liability policy is not designed to protect a stable against claims for injury to, or loss of, a boarded horse. In fact, liability insurance policies often have “care, custody, or control” exclusions. Stables seeking protection against claims from customers asserting that their horses received negligent care usually need to purchase a care, custody, and control insurance endorsement (sometimes called a “bailees liability insurance” endorsement).
3. Make sure your boarding contracts specify the services you will provide. In a lawsuit I defended, the horse owner claimed that the stable wrongly pastured her horse in a group instead of an individual paddock. Although the stable manager insisted that the owner was agreeable to a group pasture and the horse had been turned out with a group for days, nowhere did the boarding contract specify that the horse was to receive group pasture turnout.
Dispute 2: Customers fail to pay their boarding fees, forcing the stable to file a collection lawsuit.
Even in good economic times, stables encounter the problem of non-paying boarders. Because of today’s poor economy, stables are virtually guaranteed to experience this problem with much greater frequency. The sheer inevitability of a non-paying boarder is reason enough for stables to plan ahead and maximize their chances for a good result. Here are some ideas:
1. Include interest on unpaid balances in your boarding contract. State laws differ on the maximum rate of interest businesses can charge.
2. Consider imposing late payment fees in the contract.
3. Include a clause in the contract in which the boarder agrees to pay attorney fees if legal disputes arise. While there can never be a guarantee that courts will enforce it, stables that don’t include these clauses have little chance of recovering their legal fees when they bring a collection lawsuit.
4. Even though the stable could very well hold a lien on the boarded horses for non-payment of fees, consider whether it makes better sense to ask the boarder to leave and then bring litigation later to collect the unpaid board. It is more sensible for stables to ask boarders to leave while the debt is small than to allow unpaid board bills to accumulate for months. The smaller the debt, the greater the chance that the stable can bring a collection lawsuit in small claims court and save the expense of a lawyer.
5. Understand your rights under stablemen’s lien laws and follow your law to the letter. My article in this magazine (“Lien and Mean,” Stable Management, May 2008, p. 16), examined state stablemen’s lien laws. The article explained how these laws, found in many states, offer stables a way to collect past due board money and sell the boarded horse, often without resorting to costly litigation.
Dispute 3: The boarder hires a riding instructor to give her lessons on the stable’s property. During one of these lessons the boarder falls and is injured. Though the instructor was not employed by or connected with the stable, the boarder sues the independent instructor and the boarding stable.
This scenario has been a sad reality for some stables that invite “roving” instructors and trainers to do business on their premises. A few stables, mainly out of fear of litigation, prohibit visiting professionals from doing business on the property. Stable management willing to allow visiting professionals, however, have a few options to help prepare themselves for the risks:
1. Require all visiting instructors to show proof of appropriate commercial liability insurance with policy limits that are acceptable to the stable. Stables can also require the instructor to include the stable and its property owners on the instructor’s policy as additional named insureds.
The importance of evaluating independent professionals’ liability insurance cannot be emphasized enough. Typically, a boarding stable’s standard commercial liability insurance policy does not cover (and might even exclude) riding instruction activities. And some insurance policies might only offer the stable coverage for lessons if the stable’s own employees, as opposed to visiting professionals, give the lessons.
2. Require visiting instructors to use their own liability release documents, with proper language. That way, if the stable and instructor use good releases, both could potentially have strong defenses to litigation. And remember that having a good release is never a substitute for liability insurance.
3. Consider buying extra liability insurance for the stable to cover riding lesson activities on the premises, even if the stable’s employees do not give the lessons. Some stables, fearful that visiting professionals might be inadequately insured, willingly incur the added expense of buying liability insurance coverage that is designed to protect the stable from claims or suits that could arise from lessons on the property.
This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, seek a knowledgeable attorney.
Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney who serves the horse industry. She is the author of two books on equine law and has drafted hundreds of contracts. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net.