Monday, March 24, 2014

Horse Owners May Be Liable for Equine Trespass

Q:       I board my ten-year-old daughter’s horse, Roamer, at a private boarding stable. We visit the horse for my daughter to ride and take lessons, but the stable owners handle the horse’s care and turn him out for free exercise. If Roamer gets out of the pasture and damages property belonging to the stable owner’s neighbor, could I be held responsible?
A:        If the horse gets loose and runs down the highway or onto neighboring property, this is called running “at large” under Ohio law, which says,
“No person, who is the owner or keeper of horses, mules, cattle, bison, sheep, goats, swine, llamas, alpacas, or geese, shall permit them to run at large in the public road, highway, street, lane, or alley, or upon unenclosed land, or cause the animals to be herded, kept, or detained for the purpose of grazing on premises other than those owned or lawfully occupied by the owner or keeper of the animals.”
            According to Ohio law, “owner” means the person who lawfully owns the horse. “Keeper” could refer to the boarding stable or any other such place that has custody and control of the horse. In your case, you are the owner and the boarding stable likely would be considered a keeper of Roamer. If Roamer gets loose at the stables and runs onto the neighbor’s property, he would be “running at large,” which would be a violation of Ohio law.
            This means that the neighboring property owner can sue you (Roamer’s owner) as well as the boarding stable (his keeper) for any property damage. However, the neighbor will have to prove that you were negligent. Since you are only at the stable when your daughter rides Roamer and you have no control over when and where Roamer is turned out at pasture, or the handling of Roamer during turn-out, or the condition of the pasture fence or gate, it will be difficult for the neighbor to prove you were negligent.

Q:       Roamer’s former owner told us when we bought him that he is a Houdini when he is outside and that he often got out of their pasture. Is this something I should tell the boarding stable where we keep him now?
A:        Yes. You have a duty to let the stable owner or manager know that Roamer needs extra care when he is turned out so that he does not get loose. To avoid being negligent, you must exercise due care. If Roamer gets loose again, it can be argued you knew or should have known this might happen.

Q:        Could I be charged with a criminal offense if Roamer gets loose and causes damage?
A:        Only if you are deemed to be “reckless.” Ohio law states that “whoever recklessly violates” the at-large law “is guilty of a 4th degree misdemeanor.” To be reckless is more than being negligent. Reckless conduct means something was intentionally done or something that should have been done was ignored. The facts of Roamer’s escape would have to show that you intentionally allowed Roamer to run at large or personally knew of conditions that would allow him to get loose and you ignored them. The maximum potential penalty for a 4th degree misdemeanor is 30 days in jail and a fine of $250, plus any property damages caused by your horse. For negligence, you can only be held liable for money damages in a civil lawsuit.

Q:       Can I get insurance for any damage Roamer might cause?
A:        Yes. Generally you can have coverage for this type of liability under your homeowner’s policy, but do not just assume you have coverage. Contact your insurance agent and make sure your policy covers any damages Roamer might cause to property and to third parties. This coverage should be broad, and not just for an “at large” event. You should consider getting “individual horse owner’s liability coverage,” and it should include coverage for legal defense costs as well as damages to persons and property. If your homeowner’s insurance does not cover this or if you feel the coverage is not adequate, there are insurance companies in Ohio that provide specific equine policies. Also, people who operate boarding stables, give lessons or conduct training should have commercial equine insurance coverage, so it would also be wise to check with your boarding stable to see if the owners have this coverage.

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Linda C. Ashar, Attorney at Law, Vermilion. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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