Could the following scenario happen to you?
You just returned from your dream vacation — a two-week Caribbean cruise. You immediately dropped off your bags at home and rushed straight for the boarding stable to see your horse. But instead of greeting you, she was nowhere to be found. Her stall was empty. The stable owner approached you with terrible news: Your horse had a very severe bout of colic the day you left, and the veterinarian recommended surgery immediately. The stable could not reach you to get your permission. With no way of knowing whether you would consent to the costly surgery, the stable owner told the vet to put down your mare.
Later, while you were still recovering from the loss of your mare, you received another shock: The insurance company that issued a mortality policy on your horse would not pay your claim because the company believed that you did not honor the policy’s terms of giving proper and timely notice of your horse’s illness and death.
Whether this tragic scenario is viewed from the perspective of the equine facility or the boarder, it is clear that nobody was a winner. These problems might have been avoided if both parties had a well-written boarding contract.
Are All Boarding Contracts Alike?
All boarding contracts are not alike. Some merely provide the fees that the boarder must pay, late payment charges, and the stable’s daily services. Details, which many boarding contracts surprisingly avoid, can make all the difference. In the scenario above, some details in a boarding contract might have changed the outcome completely. This article examines and generally discusses a few details that boarding contracts typically miss. This article is not intended to render legal advice. Legal principles discussed in this article vary from state to state and may not be binding in all jurisdictions. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you discuss your boarding contract with a knowledgeable attorney.
Extra Elements of Boarding Contracts
The following are five elements or “details” to consider for a boarding contract:
1. Handling Emergencies, Especially With an Unavailable Owner.
Emergencies ranging from cuts to colic are a foreseeable part of horse ownership. In the situation above, the boarder, before leaving for the cruise, could have given the facility a phone number or instructions for handling emergencies. The boarding contract presents a good opportunity to address how the facility can handle emergencies, especially if the owner is unavailable. For example, the facility might request a broad authorization to procure veterinary attention should an emergency arise when the owner cannot be reached (make sure your veterinarian will accept this authorization and allow the stable to make decisions for the owner). On the other hand, the owner might want to limit the stable’s authorization, give the stable special instructions, or provide a dollar limit on emergency veterinary care. The owner might also want to designate someone as a contact person who is authorized to make decisions regarding the horse in the owner’s absence. In either situation, the stable would be wise to have the owner acknowledge that he or she will pay the veterinarian’s bill.
Should the horse boarding facility know that you bought a policy of mortality insurance on your horse? Absolutely. Equine mortality insurance companies will give you an emergency telephone number which you or the person in possession of your horse must call when the horse becomes injured or ill. Insurance policies typically require that the company must be notified promptly of serious health problems while the horse is still alive. With proper notice, the company can evaluate each problem, and it may want to do any number of things such as consult with the attending veterinarian, order an investigation or new course of treatment, get a second opinion, consent to have the horse put down, and/or order a post-mortem examination.
In the scenario above, the owner notified the insurer two weeks after the horse died. On the basis that the owner failed to comply with the policy’s notice requirement, the insurer refused to make payment on the policy. This problem might have been avoided if the boarder had given the stable the insurer’s name, emergency phone number, and policy number so that the stable could contact the insurer for the owner. The stable can request this information in its boarding contract.
3. Your Equine Activity Liability Act Language.
As of October 1995, 35 states across the nation have laws that protect their horse industries. About 20 of these laws require that contracts used by equine professionals (such as boarding facility operators) must include specific “warning” or other language. Form contracts sold in stores and found in books usually will not provide this very important information. Check your state’s law to determine whether your boarding contract should include this language.
4. Facility-wide Equine Health Programs.
What good is keeping your horse carefully immunized against diseases if the other horses at the stable have fallen drastically behind in their inoculations? Boarding facilities may want to establish a stable-wide inoculation and de-worming program. The boarding contract presents a good opportunity to list schedules or disclose the program and have all boarders consent to it. These provisions will promote the general well-being of all horses on the premises; boarders might even insist on them.
5. Release of Liability (if Allowed Under Governing Law).
We often hear the statement: “Releases are not worth the paper they’re written on”? Chances are that you have not only heard it but repeated it, without even knowing whether the statement was true under your state’s law. Many states legally permit parties to sign liability releases. In those states, the releases are well worth the paper they are written on. Boarding facilities that avoid releases are missing out on a good opportunity to try to limit their liability. Keep in mind that releases should be drafted with the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney. Having a release does not eliminate the need for proper insurance.
In June 1995, this author successfully defended a personal injury lawsuit brought against an upper Michigan riding stable by a woman who was injured while falling from a rented horse. On the basis that the injured party had signed the stable’s liability release before the ride, this author convinced the court to dismiss the case without a trial. The lawsuit had sought over $100,000 in damages against the stable.
For the protection of the facility and its customers, the horse boarding relationship deserves a carefully written contract. Details are nothing to be afraid of, and they can benefit everyone. It is strongly suggested that you have your boarding contract reviewed by a knowledgeable attorney.
Julie I. Fershtman, Esq.
About the Author
Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC
One Northwestern Plaza
28411 Northwestern Hwy., Ste. 500
Southfield, Michigan 48034