Whose Fault?

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When a horse is boarded with a stable, one assumes that any legal action taken by an owner for death or injury to the horse would be against the stable owner/manager. If however, a boarded horse has an accident (that results in its death) as a consequence of the actions of a student, apprentice or working student at the stable and the owner of the boarded horse were to sue the stable for damages, would the stable owner be able to turn around and sue the person who actually caused the accident? Would the person sued have to be over a certain age—sixteen or older?

Additionally, if the boarder does not have mortality or liability insurance on their horse does it make any difference?

The answer to your first question is going to be complicated so I will deal with the last two questions first, which are relatively simple to answer.

A person can be a party to a lawsuit regardless of age. In fact, under certain circumstances, you can be a party to a lawsuit before you are born. The fact that the person is 16 is not a problem, although, depending on the jurisdiction, it may present some procedural issues.

The fact that the boarder does not have insurance may increase the probability of a lawsuit. If the boarder can collect their money through an insurance company, it is less likely that they will want to sue you. On the other hand, an insurance company will look at the situation as a cost versus benefit analysis. If the insurance company decides that it will come out ahead by suing you, that’s what it will do. And it’s important to remember that anytime someone receives a payment from an insurance company, the insurance company receives a right to sue to recover the money that it just paid out.

For your first question, the fact that it is being presented as a hypothetical presents some problems with answering it. With only slight changes in your facts, you get some major differences in the answer. As I understand the situation, a student/ working student/employee caused the death of a horse that was boarded at a facility that you own. The reason that I added the term “employee” is to enable you to understand the range of positions that you are describing. The fact that the person’s role is not clearly defined is going to result in some limitations in my ability to give you a clear answer.

Before we determine whether you can sue this individual, let’s determine when you can be sued in this ­situation. A boarding agreement, properly drafted, is going to severely limit the horse owner’s ability to sue you, so I will discuss the situation as if there is no boarding agreement. Under the law, when you board a horse you are creating what is called a “bailment.” In a bailment, you are responsible for returning the person’s property to them in the same condition as when you received it. In essence, the horse owner merely needs to show that their horse was damaged while in your care, and does not need to show that you were negligent. While there are some limitations on this liability, these are exceptions, and there is no reason to believe that you would fall outside the general rules.

Suing Students/Employees

So, if you can be sued relatively easily, can you then sue the individual that caused this problem in the first place? The short answer is probably not. Although you can be sued without the horse owner having to prove negligence, you would need to show that the individual was negligent before you can even begin to think of suing the student or employee. To show that this person was negligent, you would have to show that the person acted in such a way, or failed to act in such a way, that he or she could reasonably expect the horse to be injured. Assuming that you can show that the student or employee was negligent, you still have some hurdles to overcome.

In the case of a student, you, as the teacher, are responsible for the student’s instruction, and have to accept the fact that students will make mistakes. Further, you are responsible for what you have failed to teach the student. For example, if the accident happened because of the fact that you haven’t taught the student about jumping, and the horse was injured during a jump, you can be responsible for that failure. The only way you are going to be able to sue the student is if the student deliberately failed to follow your direction, and as a result of that failure, caused the horse injury. This is not easy to prove.

The situation is approximately the same with employees (apprentice or working students would probably be considered employees). An employer is responsible for all acts of an employee, even if the employee is negligent. Although the employer rarely sues an employee, a lawsuit is theoretically possible. In order to maintain this lawsuit, you would have to prove that the employee was acting outside the scope of his/her employment. An example would be if you hired an employee to muck stalls, and that employee caused the accident while attempting to teach (something that you never authorized the employee to do), then the employee is acting outside the scope of his employment. The action of the employee would probably have to be tantamount to a firing offense.

Lacking a description of what caused the death of the horse, it is impossible to give you a specific answer, but my guess is that you are going to be unable to sue your student/apprentice. Even if you are able to sue this person, as a practical matter, I doubt if a sixteen-year-old is going to have the financial resources to pay you (although his or her parents may).

“The buck stops here” describes not only presidents, but also employers and teachers, and more likely than not, you are going to be financially responsible for this situation. I would strongly suggest having your boarding agreement reviewed by an attorney to avoid this type of situation in the future.