Whose Bill is It, Anyway?

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The following section is an ongoing column where readers can ask questions regarding legal matters. To ask your own question, send it to Stable Management, P.O. Box 644, Woodbury, Conn., 06798, or email jenn@stable-management.com.

I took a horse on trial from another trainer after seeing the horse go at her place. I had it in mind for a client. The day after he was brought over, I took him out, saddled him up, only to find him quite lame. I had not done anything with the animal since it arrived and had kept him inside.

When I phoned the trainer to let her know, she accused me of having done something to the horse and wanted me to pay for any and all vet bills. I think they may have masked some problem with some drugs. What should I do in this situation?

—Jill Goldberg

I am not positive from your description, but it would appear that you acquired this horse on consignment, rather than purchasing it and then reselling. Phrased another way, you have no ownership interest in the horse. This point is important because the answer to the question changes significantly when you acquire an ownership interest. I am further going to make the assumption that you have no written contract. Obviously, the best way to deal with this problem is to anticipate it and plan for it in a written contract.

Even though there is nothing in writing, the law holds that there is a contract between you and the trainer. The contract is that you would take this horse from the trainer and take appropriate care of the horse until you transferred the horse to your client. This type of contract is called a “bailment” and is similar to when you leave your car in a parking garage. You are the bailee and the trainer is the bailor.

You have a legal obligation to take appropriate care of the horse and are responsible for making right any damages that happen to the horse while the horse is in your care. This is the trainer’s legal argument.

Your legal argument is that the horse’s lameness actually occurred before you received the horse and that it was in some way masked during your observation of the horse. Your problem is whether you can prove your argument.

“Many drugs will still show up in a blood sample after their obvious effects have worn off.”

To begin with, the next time you go to see a horse, get a videotape of the horse in action, preferably under a rider who will be using the horse after the transfer. This video provides a baseline as to the horse’s way of going, and may show signs of lameness or being drugged that you didn’t observe. And if after the horse arrives at your property he develops a problem, get another videotape of the horse in action (as much as the horse will let you safely do). By watching this video and comparing it to the first video, an expert may be able to see partial signs of the lameness in the earlier tape. Further, you can have experts look at the horse without actually having to go see the horse, which can save some money.

Also, contact your vet immediately to come out and examine the horse. Get a blood sample and have it checked for any traces of drugs. Many drugs will still show up in a blood sample after their obvious effects have worn off. And if the blood sample indicates that the horse was drugged, send the blood test to the trainer also, and mention the word “fraud.” Depending on the state(s) in which this transaction took place, if the horse was drugged, the trainer may be in violation of a consumer protection act and subject to damages in excess of the actual amount of money that the vet charged.

“You have a legal obligation to...right any damages that happen to the horse while the horse is in your care.”

But blood tests will be ineffective in your case as too much time has passed. At this point, have a vet attempt to determine the cause of the lameness. Depending on the type of lameness, the vet may be able to determine when the lameness originally occurred. Have the vet document his or her findings, preferably on videotape.

At this point, you need to listen to your vet. Is the vet saying that the lameness obviously occurred because of something in the stall? Or is the vet saying that the lameness is the result of chronic laminitis? Or does the vet have no idea how the lameness happened? Until you can determine what is the cause of the lameness, it is difficult to determine who is responsible for the vet’s bill.

If the vet says that the lameness was the result of something that occurred during transport or while at your barn, a court will probably find you responsible for the vet’s bill. If, however, the vet says that the lameness is a pre-existing condition, then send the bill to the trainer. If the trainer refuses to pay the vet’s bill, contact an attorney immediately, because you’re probably going to need leverage such as the threat of a lawsuit to force the trainer to pay.

If the vet has no clue as to how the lameness happened, either further investigation is needed, or a willingness from both you and the trainer to cooperate to resolve the problem. Look for people who saw the horse shortly before you received it, and are willing to testify that they saw lameness in the horse when they saw it.

As well as with lameness, this approach works with behavioral problems (such as rearing or bucking) or other health problems that suddenly arise after you acquire a new horse. Even if there is a written contract, these steps will help protect you should problems arise.

With any expensive horse, it is well worth your money to have the horse checked out by your vet after it arrives at your barn. With a blood sample taken and stored, and an examination by your vet, you will have a good idea of any problems immediately, rather than waiting for the problems to become obvious. It also gives your vet a chance to meet your new horse, because often a pre-purchase exam is not done by your vet, but by a vet located where the horse is when you acquire it.