Friday, 01 June 2012 07:28

Horses & the Law – Horses & the Media

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Disclaimer–This article is intended as general discussion and information on the topic covered, and is not to be construed as rendering legal advice. If legal advice is needed, you should contact an attorney. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the author.

Horse cases have been in the spotlight recently, even making it to the “Judge Judy” television show aired before a national audience. On February 3, 2012, CBS aired a dispute between horse owner, Deborah Dobbs, and horse trainer, Sharon Jeffco. The lawsuit was for injuries caused to the horse allegedly at the hands of the trainer. Damages were sought in the amount of $5,000. The case was highly visible with internet pictures of the horse’s injuries, which consisted of severe lacerations to the horse’s tongue allegedly caused by the trainer using an improper bit and improper training methods.

The evidence produced at trial showed that Dobbs, the owner of the 5-year-old mare in question, was present during the training session. Jeffco, the trainer, argued that the lacerations on the horse’s tongue were present before the training session and that the wounds were reopened during the training session. Jeffco further argued that she was unaware of the wounds before the training session began.

Dobbs was so upset about the condition of the horse’s tongue that she sued Jeffco. Jeffco was so upset about the lawsuit and the fact that it was publicized that she countersued Dobbs for defamation and loss of business income. The stage was set for “Judge Judy” to sort out the mess.

It should be noted that both parties argued their position on the web and a great deal of information was included on their web sites. It was clear during the “trial” that both parties disliked one another and bad blood existed. A modern day “Hatfield and McCoy” situation existed for Judge Judy.

The key piece of evidence, the bit used by the trainer, was strangely not produced at trial. However, the trainer did post a statement by a veterinarian, who supposedly examined the bit, that it was a solid shank bit. The trial itself was rather nasty, even amusing at times, as the litigants continued to chide and argue with one another. This is inappropriate in a courtroom. Neither party used an attorney.

The trial itself, from a legal standpoint, was interesting, in that neither party brought a veterinarian with them to testify in support of their position. Although both parties brought in “reports” from veterinarians, many of the veterinary conclusions were based on photographs, etc. Clearly, a live veterinarian who had personally examined the horse would have been the best evidence to present in such a hotly contested matter.

The parties were constantly fighting between themselves during the trial, which clearly irritated Judge Judy and did the litigants little favor. An attorney could have nipped that behavior in the bud, thereby presenting a far more credible and dignified case. Judges like that sort of thing. Credibility is hard to judge when the parties are constantly fighting among themselves, allowing a judge to conclude that they both may be exaggerating to some degree in order to “prove their point.”

The biggest piece of evidence which hurt the horse owner was the fact that she witnessed the training session, but said nothing and allowed the horse to remain on the premises after the session. The Judge found it unusual that if such an abusive training session and methods were used, that the owner didn’t stop the session and remove the horse immediately, especially since the owner testified that the trainer tied the horse’s head down and used a whip on the horse.

On the other hand, the biggest piece of evidence which hurt the trainer was the fact that she paid the owner $953.50 in restitution in the related criminal animal cruelty case. The Judge further found that the payment was payment-in-full for any damages which may have been suffered by the owner.

Considering all of the evidence, Judge Judy awarded zero to both parties. It simply wasn’t clear who caused the initial injuries to the horse, the owner didn’t complain about the training methods or remove the horse immediately after the session, the trainer paid the owner restitution damages of over $900 in the animal cruelty proceeding and the owner was apparently paid-in-full as a result thereof. The trainer did not sufficiently prove defamation or loss of business income so Judge Judy found against both of them and basically told them to chill out and move on.

The dispute clearly became more personal as time went on. It is difficult to prevent this type of case from occurring, but the use of a written training agreement, addressing the training methods, etc., with a general release included therein, may have prevented the lawsuit.

Another horse case which made national headlines was the filing of charges against a Pennsylvania woman for selling rescue horses to slaughter buyers. Kelsey Lefever, Honeybrook, Pennsylvania, was charged with four counts of theft by deception. In the charges filed against Lefever, the Pennsylvania State Police allege that Lefever sold over 120 rescue horses for slaughter after she told the owners she would find good homes for them.
Specifically, Lefever was charged with selling four retired racehorses to a slaughter buyer representing a slaughter plant in Quebec, Canada. She promised the previous owners that she would retrain the horses, rehabilitate them and find them new adoptive homes. One of the owners, Kevin Patterson, stated that he gave his racehorse, a 5-year-old Thoroughbred, which suffered a career-ending injury, to Lefever, with the specific understanding that the horse would be rehabilitated and placed for adoption. Patterson also gave Lefever $200 toward expenses until the horse could be adopted.

The allegations against Lefever further stated that she went to racetracks and represented herself as a horse rescuer and told donors, including Patterson, that she never sent horses to slaughter. The case came to light when the person who was supposed to adopt Patterson’s horse could not locate him. When Lefever was informed that Patterson was looking for the horse, Lefever allegedly commented he can stop looking as the horse is in the freezer. Lefever also allegedly told a horse dealer that she got rid of everyone of “those horses,” over 120, and there is nothing anyone can do since the horses were given to me. The horses were sold to a slaughter buyer at the New Holland auction located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The District Attorney’s Office of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, where the charges were filed, readily admitted that there is no law against the sale of horses to slaughter facilities in Canada and Mexico. First Assistant District Attorney, Francis Chardo, stated “this is lawful activity.” Chardo went on to explain the problem with Lefever’s action was the false pretense on how the horses were obtained. Lefever had misrepresented to donors that she would rehabilitate, re-train and find the horses a new adoptive home. Instead, she sold the horses for slaughter.

The District Attorney’s Office and Lefever worked out a plea bargain where Lefever would avoid jail and be placed in a first-time offender’s program. Lefever will also be banned for life from obtaining a Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Racing License thereby barring her from Pennsylvania racetrack employment including racehorse training. She will also not be allowed to obtain any additional horses for the two-year period she will be on probation.

These cases, unfortunately, do not cast horse people in a positive light. Of course, news media always reports the bad news as it sells better. We horse people know better. The above referenced cases are the exception and not the rule. I will continue to review horse news and hopefully find some positive stories to report.
Enough legal talk–it’s time to hitch horses!

Ken is a practicing attorney in Myerstown, PA, where a good bit of his practice involves negligence cases. He and his wife, Karen, own Sunny Hill Farm Belgians, and they have been exhibiting their six-horse hitch for the past few years at most major shows in the East.

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