Who Makes the Call?

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The following section is not legal advice. Readers should consult with their own lawyers. 

What can I do, as a barn owner, to cover myself when a client’s horse falls ill or gets hurt and I can’t get in touch with the client? Many of my clients do not have insurance, and I find myself in a Catch-22 situation. I get in trouble if I call a vet and get in trouble if I don’t.

—Jen Meadows, California

This is one of those questions that is really easy to solve if you have a written boarding agreement, and extremely difficult to solve if you don’t have one.

The following is the language I use in boarding agreements to deal with this situation:

Emergency Care:

(1) Should the horse become sick or injured, Farm shall telephone the Owner immediately upon becoming aware of the situation. (2) If the Owner is unavailable, Farm has the authority to secure emergency veterinary and/or blacksmith care. (3) The Owner is responsible to pay all costs relating to this care. (4) Farm is authorized as Owner’s agent to arrange billing to the Owner. (5) The Owner hereby authorizes Farm to spend up to, but no more than, $_________.00 for emergency care if the Owner is unavailable.

Here are the benefits of this clause (I’ve numbered the sentences above for convenience; you don’t need them in an actual boarding agreement.) The first sentence establishes the farm’s obligation to let the owner know about a problem as soon as the farm is aware of one. This reminds the farm of its legal obligation to inform the owner of any condition that needs attention, an obligation that applies even if there is no written boarding agreement.

The second sentence gives the farm the legal authority to act as an agent for the owner in obtaining care. When a person appoints an agent to act in his or her place, the agent has the authority to make the reasonable decisions that would normally be made in a given situation.

The third and fourth sentences establish that, even though the agent made the decision, the owner who appointed the agent is liable for the consequences of the agent’s decision. In short, the owner is liable for the bills.

The fourth sentence gives the farm legal authority to tell the vet or farrier to bill the owner, not the farm. Many farms would prefer to pay the vet or farrier directly, so that the vet or farrier is not waiting on the boarder. A farm can still do that under the terms of this clause. Sentence four simply enables the farm to decide which option to use in a particular situation. Sentence three obligates the horse owner to pay whoever presents the bill.

The fifth sentence is one I came across about two years ago and immediately added to all of my boarding agreements. By establishing a limit on how much the owner is willing to spend, the farm has a guideline on how to address an emergency. This clause helps you avoid the situation in which a boarder tells you that “money is no object” when his horse becomes ill. Everyone has a limit. Get a firm, hard figure that seems realistic.

Consider this example: The owner’s horse develops a colic that is going to require immediate surgery—the horse is in extreme pain. The estimated total bill will be at least $2,000. You call the owner, but can’t get in touch with her. The owner has stated in her boarding agreement that the most she will allow you to spend is $500. In this situation, you are legally justified in putting the horse down, even though you haven’t been able to contact the owner. On the other hand, if the owner gave you a $2,000 limit, you would be legally justified in sending the horse off for surgery, even though you haven’t been able to contact the owner. Either way, the owner has set the value that she places on the horse, and that removes the farm from the problem of trying to decide whether the horse is worth saving on not.

Remember, though, that this clause applies to EMERGENCIES ONLY. If a decision can be put off until you can contact the owner without harming the horse, then the situation isn’t an emergency and can wait. The fact that the vet is going to have to charge extra for a second visit after you contact the owner does not make it an emergency. Usually it’s up to the vet or farrier to determine whether an emergency exists or not.

That covers those horses that don’t have mortality or loss-of-use insurance. But what of those that do? In those cases, you need to contact the carrier and determine what its decision is. Information about the insurance policy and how to contact the insurer should also be part of your boarding agreement. As a practical matter, if the horse is insured for $10,000 and the vet says that a cure is possible for $1,000, the insurance company will probably authorize the cure and expect the owner of the horse to pay the vet.

So use written boarding agreements and save yourself from grief. If you don’t get it in writing and your boarder refuses to pay for services you have authorized, your only real option is to take the owner to small claims court. You’ll then have to convince the judge that your decision to call the vet and incur expenses was reasonable, and that the owner should be required to pay you back.

Written boarding contracts can protect you, and they prevent the owner from being surprised by large vet bills. And that resolves your Catch-22.