Telling Lies

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What happens after you give a boarder the ultimatum to leave and they are unhappy about it??What are your former boarders legally allowed to say, and what rights (if any) do stable managers/owners have when being harassed by individuals who just did not like that they could not call the shots, or did not agree with the way a facility was run and when asked to leave continued to be vindictive to the point of harassment?

This is a very serious topic looming over many facilities, and it’s one that should not just be swept under the rug.

—Name Withheld

I got this question from Stable Management a few weeks after a client contacted me about the same issue. Fortunately for my client, the problem went away. But it can be a major problem, with only very limited solutions.

First, let’s understand what slander is. The definition, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is “The speaking of base and defamatory words tending to prejudice another in his reputation, office, trade, business, or means of livelihood.” Spoken slander is similar to written libel in that both are a means of defaming the character of another. Essential to both slander and libel is that the statement is (1) untrue, (2) that it be conveyed to another, and (3) that there is harm. Because the second and the third elements are easily understood, let’s look at the first element.

To understand what is (and what is not) slander, consider three different scenarios, all involving a fictitious trainer named “Jim,” who does not represent any person, either living or dead.

Example 1: Someone says, “Jim is a lousy trainer.” This is not slander, as it simply expresses an opinion. You’re allowed to express an opinion, and since there is no effective way to define a good or bad trainer, this statement is not specific enough to provide any legal recourse.

Example 2: Someone says, “Jim is a lousy trainer because he hits horses with a whip.” Now we’re getting some solid information to work with: We now know that Jim is a lousy trainer because of whipping his horses. This is no longer a simple opinion, but a statement coupled with an opinion. But is it true??Jim uses a dressage whip to tap (hit) his horse into position when he’s working them from the ground. Does that make him a lousy trainer? There are some people who would argue that using a whip anytime is inappropriate. Many trainers, however, do use a whip as part of their training technique and it is not universally recognized as something that is cruel or a poor training technique. Still, this statement is not slander, because it can not be proven untrue.

Example 3: Someone says, “ Jim is a lousy trainer because he hits horses with a whip and injures them.” This statement adds more detail and could be slander. If Jim has never injured a horse while using a whip, the addition of the phrase “and injures them” makes the statement untrue, and this statement would be slander.

Although it doesn’t feel good when people are saying things as shown in examples 1 and 2, there isn’t anything that you can do to stop them. Example 3 can be a legal cause of action, but may not be the best course of action.

I’m sure that you’ve noticed the magazines at the supermarket checkout aisle that claim that some actress’s baby is a space alien or the father is someone the actress has never met. Most actresses decide it is easier to ignore the magazine than to go through the aggravation of legal action. There are two problems with commencing legal action—the original story continues and continues and continues, and the attorney’s fees mount and mount and mount. Many people in Hollywood decide that life is too short for this type of aggravation. You may, too.

“...your best defense against someone making slanderous comments about you or your business is having a good reputation.”

And suing won’t necessarily silence your antagonist, even if you win. Because you are in a business, you should be aware that courts have upheld the rights of an individual to park her car in front of an auto dealership with a big sign on it saying that it is a lemon. As long as there is a factual basis, and the car is not on the dealership’s property, the car owner is entitled to express his or her opinion about the dealership. Obviously, this is not good advertising for the dealership. Your unhappy ex-boarder can do much the same, with equally bad publicity for your barn.

If Jim decides to sue, and wins, the court might order?any or all of the following:

  1. That the person is not allowed to make any further statements about Jim, and that if the person does, the court will impose some type of sanction;
  2. That the person publishes a retraction. This might consist of an advertisement in a magazine in which the person says that the statements that they made about Jim are untrue; and/or
  3. That the person is responsible for the damages that Jim suffered (loss of business) and that the individual is responsible for paying for those damages. The problem is that in all probability the person who made the statements doesn’t have the financial resources to make any payments.

In reality, your best defense against someone making slanderous comments about you or your business is having a good reputation. People and businesses that have solid reputations can survive slanderous comments with little or no effect, while if your reputation is questionable, then the slanderous statements will add further fuel to demonstrate that you are a bad person.

If someone is making slanderous statements about you and you wish to sue them for slander, you must document the case. Every time that someone tells you that a person made a slanderous statement to them, you need to document to whom the statement was made, how you found out about it, and what the exact statement was. And you need to determine whether the person who tells you about the statement is willing to be a witness.

The easiest solution for slander is to avoid it in the first place, and there are a few steps you can take in this regard. Check the references that prospective boarders give you. And if a prospective boarder sits there during your initial meeting and describes how horrid her previous stable was, think about the fact that she is probably going to be doing the same thing when she leaves your stable!

If you feel you must remove an unwanted (and unhappy)?boarder from your stable, there is one final step you should take to protect yourself:?You should clearly document (in writing) why you are asking your boarder to leave. My favorite example involved a boarder who was asked to leave because she was caught smoking marijuana in the tack room of the barn and then going riding. Because my client gave this boarder a written reason for why she needed to leave the barn, the boarder (who had a reputation of complaining about barns that she had been thrown out of) never made any comments about my client. I guess she ­didn’t want my client publishing the termination letter.

I hope this helps you with this difficult situation.

James Clark-Dawe is the author of “Equine Liability.” For more on the author and book, check out www.equinelawonline.com.