Dan hired a trainer, Sarah, to train his horse and haul it to a few shows during the year. While under Sarah’s care, however, Dan’s horse colicked, and a veterinarian had to put the horse down. Should Sarah, the trainer, be responsible for paying for the loss of Dan’s horse and his vet bills?

What the Law Expects of a Trainer’s Services

When a person, such as Dan, leaves a horse with a trainer for care, keeping, and training, the law generally requires the trainer to use “reasonable care” in carrying out these tasks. This means that the trainer must use the degree of care that a prudent and careful trainer would use in similar circumstances.

Clients like Dan who bring claims against their trainers for injuries to or losses of their horses must prove that the trainer somehow fell short of this standard, that the trainer's failings were the legal cause of the horse’s demise, and that the trainer should be legally accountable for damages that resulted.

Difficulties and Complexities of Suing Horse Trainers

The loss of a horse is unfortunate, but courts will expect Dan to do far more than point to the loss of his horse and blame the trainer. He will need to prove that the trainer is legally responsible. This can be a complicated process for a few reasons:

  • Even with the best possible care, horses can develop colic.
  • Dan’s horse might have harbored a condition that made it more likely to colic, having nothing to do with the quality of care that Sarah and her staff gave.
  • To prove that improper care caused his horse's demise, Dan may need to retain an expert witness veterinarian. That expert would evaluate the evidence, such as necropsy information, veterinary records, surgical records, evaluation of the horse (if it is alive), and all other documents. The expert might also need to conduct further tests on the horse. Afterwards, Dan would expect the expert to issue a conclusion supportive of Dan’s case.
  • People may be unwilling to testify against the trainer. The trainer may have several customers and employees who have seen first-hand the care and attention that the trainer gave Dan's horse. Still, they might not want to be involved. Even if Dan’s lawyer subpoenas them to testify at a deposition or trial regarding the trainer’s care, their testimony could be unpredictable.

What the Trainer Stands to Lose

If Dan wins his case against the trainer, he might, at a minimum, seek to collect the horse’s value immediately before the death plus (where allowed by law) or the decrease in the horse's value that he attributes to the trainer's care. His case might also seek expenses he incurred while trying to bring his back to health, such as veterinary bills, equine hospitalization costs, and hauling fees. Depending on the circumstances and applicable law, he might also seek to recover the value of any lost foals or lost net earnings from races, shows, or stud fees. Under prevailing law in most states, Dan cannot expect to recover losses from “pain and suffering.”

Damage Control for Trainers and Horse Owners

Through careful advance planning, horse trainers and owners can try to protect themselves from problems before they occur.

Trainers

  • Liability Insurance. Liability insurance will not prevent problems from happening, but it could spare trainers the burden of hiring a lawyer or settling disputes with their own funds. For equine businesses, the typical insurance is Commercial General Liability Insurance and/or Equine Professional Liability Insurance, but trainers may need more. Because these liability insurance policies may not protect trainers against claims involving horses that are injured or die due to the trainer’s negligence while the horse is in the trainer’s care, custody, and control, trainers should consider purchasing an extra coverage endorsement known as “Care, custody, and control” insurance (some companies call it “care custody, or control” insurance or a “bailee coverage legal liability” policy). Discuss appropriate coverages and policy limits with a knowledgeable insurance agent.
  • Liability releases. In most states, courts have enforced liability releases – as long as the documents are properly worded and signed. Trainers can consider including properly-worded liability releases within their training contracts (where allowed by law). Our blog discussed this issue recently. Here is a link.

Owners

  • Equine insurance. Horse owners can contact a knowledgeable insurance agent about purchasing mortality, major medical, and/or loss of use insurance. These coverages are designed to compensate horse owners for the covered loss of a horse and for certain expenses associated with the horse’s veterinary care. Keep in mind that insurers, after they pay claims, almost always have the right to bring legal action against parties who might be responsible for causing the loss. This legal concept is called “subrogation,” and equine insurers might pursue it against trainers believed to be negligent.

This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.