Who Is at Fault?

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The veterinarian and his assistant arrived at your farm to perform a routine castration procedure. As the veterinarian held the horse’s lead line while the horse settled down, he placed the horse very close to a parked tractor. The horse moved about nervously, and he broke from the veterinarian’s grasp. Soon, the horse became tangled with the tractor. As a result, the horse became severely injured.

While the farrier briefly left the barn in the middle of adjusting a new shoe for a horse, he left the horse alone, tied to a stall on the barn’s cement aisle. Unfortunately, the farrier forgot to move a hoof stand, leaving it very close to the horse. The horse spooked, lost his footing on the barn floor, and fell directly on top of the hoof stand, causing severe injuries that ended his life.

Both of these scenarios actually occurred. In both of them, the equine professional’s liability was seriously considered. Which leads to the question: what are liabilities of farriers and veterinarians when they are accused of negligently injuring or killing horses in their care?

MALPRACTICE VERSUS

PROFESSIONAL NEGLIGENCE

Generally speaking, the law imposes a duty on professionals, such as veterinarians and farriers, to use reasonable skill, diligence and attention as may ordinarily be expected of a careful and skillful person in the same profession. If you believe that a veterinarian or farrier has fallen short of this standard, you might have grounds to bring legal action against him or her for professional negligence or malpractice.

PROVING LIABILITY

Do you have a case against the veterinarian or farrier? If you are the one bringing the claim or lawsuit, remember that the law imposes on you the burden of proving your case (lawyers call this the “burden of proof”). To establish that you have a valid case against a veterinarian or a farrier, you will be expected to prove each of the following elements:

• First, you must prove that the veterinarian or farrier had a legally recognized duty to handle a professional matter in a certain way. In the examples above, you would assert that the farrier and the veterinarian should have kept each of the horses away from potentially dangerous implements, such as the hoof stand or tractor, while services were in progress. Over the years, it has become more important than ever to prove your accusation through the testimony of a competent person in the same profession, such as another veterinarian or farrier who will testify to what the professional did wrong. In several veterinary malpractice cases, in fact, courts have been known to dismiss the lawsuits for the simple reason that the claims were not properly supported by a qualified veterinarian.

• Second, you must prove that the veterinarian or farrier somehow departed from or “breached” that duty. Your expert witness would help prove this element.

• Third, you must prove “proximate cause.” That is, you must prove that the equine professional’s improper conduct, and not some other reason, caused the horse’s injury, demise, or devaluation.

• Finally, you must prove with reasonable certainty the sum of money or value that you have lost (lawyers call that sum “damages”). Sometimes, a knowledgeable equine appraiser or industry expert can help prove this element of your case.

In cases of malpractice or professional negligence, you typically can expect to apply the law of the state where the malpractice took place.

DAMAGES YOU CAN RECOVER

The amounts you can recover in a claim or suits against a veterinarian or farrier will vary nationwide. For a winning case, here are examples of some of the damages that courts could award, depending on state law:

• the horse’s fair market value around the time of its death.

• if the horse is alive, the amount of money by which the horse has decreased in value.

• lost profits such as stud fees, if a stallion, or offspring, if a mare. Keep in mind that courts generally will not permit damages to be “speculative” in nature, so you cannot reasonably expect a court to compensate you for the unborn foal that would have won the Triple Crown.

• the likely value of lost race or show profits. Typically, courts may allow you to recover “net profits” only. Consequently, standard overhead expenses such as training fees, boarding fees, entry fees, hauling expenses, and others would offset any gross profits and reduce your potential recovery.

• reimbursement of your expenses from caring for your injured animal.

• reimbursement for the value of your time spent in caring for your injured animal. For example, maybe you were forced to take an uncompensated leave of absence from your job so that your horse could receive proper attention.

• Sometimes, damages might even include the cost of procuring a substitute horse to replace your horse after it has been injured from malpractice or professional negligence.

Certainly, a knowledgeable lawyer can help you determine what damages the applicable state law would permit. A lawyer can also help you evaluate whether you have a valid case.

DEFENSES

When veterinarians or farriers are called upon to defend themselves against claims or suits, they must address each of the above elements, often with expert witnesses of their own. Not surprisingly, cases against equine professionals often become a highly complicated and expensive “battle of the experts.”

Equine professionals sometimes have other defenses, such as:

• the claim or suit is untimely, as it is brought after the state’s statute of limitations has expired. Most state laws limit the time in which suits can be brought against doctors and veterinarians.

• the customer signed a valid and enforceable liability waiver or release before the services were provided, and the terms of that document prevent the claim. State laws differ on whether releases are enforceable and as to whether certain professionals can utilize them.