Recap of the 2012 Animal Law Institute

Last Friday, for the fourth or fifth time, I attended the annual Animal Law Institute.  The Institute is a CLE program put on by Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.  It moves around each year, but this year it was at Texas Wesleyan School of Law here in Fort Worth.

You may be wondering, “what is animal law, and is equine law a part of animal law?” I have been practicing equine law for years, and I still don’t really know the answer. According to Wikipedia,

animal law is a combination of statutory and case law in which the nature—legal, social or biological—of nonhuman animals is an important factor. Animal law encompasses companion animals, wildlife, animals used in entertainment and animals raised for food and research. The emerging field of animal law is often analogized to the environmental law movement 30 years ago.

Most of the speakers at the Institutes I have attended in the past have seemed to generally focus on 1) animal rights/welfare issues; and 2) issues related to animal rescues and public shelters. 

My equine law practice, by way of contrast, is primarily focused on business issues. That said, I have advised several equine-related 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

Rick and I at Will Rogers Equestrian Center with two of our animals. 

This year’s Institute covered a lot of animal welfare/rights issues, but it also added an overview of equine law by Dawn Reveley, and another presentation on vet malpractice defense into the mix.   Below is a recap:

  • Will Potter, a journalist from Washington, DC, discussed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This is a 2006 federal law with which I was not previously familiar. According to Potter, the law was pushed by animal industry groups and corporations to target animal rights protestors by labeling their activities as "terrorism".  Read more about it on Will Potter’s blog, Green is the New Red. To loosely quote Potter’s [very sound] advice to would-be animal rights protestors: “Come up with a plan and get organized before you stage your protest, so people won’t think you’re crazy!” 
  • Don Feare, an attorney from Arlington, Texas, shared some excellent information for attorneys who represent animal rescue groups. Some main points include (equine nonprofits, listen up!) 1) animal welfare groups should incorporate as a nonprofit corporation to limit liability; 2) liability insurance is a necessity, especially if the organization is doing public adoption events; and 3) adoption contracts should make clear when title to the animal passes to the new owner and should be signed by all adult members of the household at which the animal is being placed.
  • Scott Heiser, a Portland-based attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, talked about how his nonprofit organization helps local prosecutors win animal cruelty cases (both through financing and by helping try cases). Heiser discussed the “business records” exception to the hearsay rule, as it applies to veterinary reports in criminal animal abuse cases. In general, vet reports are not admissible in lieu of testimony under the business records exception if the vet report was “prepared specifically for use at trial.”
  • Nicole Paquette, Texas Senior State Director with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, DC, covered the new laws from 2011 Texas Legislature that the HSUS believes benefit animals. These bills include 1) HB 1451, the “Puppy Mill Bill”--requiring licensing and inspection of dog and cat breeders who maintain 11 or more female breeding animals; 2) HB 1103--“Responsible Pet Owner Classes” required for convicted animal abusers; and 3) HB 2471--the “Good Animal Samaritan Bill”, which limits civil liability of people who render aid to an injured or distressed animal.
  • Dr. Don Ferrill (remember him from this post?) talked about how to successfully defend veterinarians in malpractice and negligence cases. His advice to plaintiffs: “Always pay your vet bill before you sue your vet.”

Watch this website for information on next year's Animal Law Institute.

Advice for Lawyers: How to Develop an Equine Law Practice

I get a lot of inquiries from lawyers and law students about how they can develop a niche practice in equine law.  Below are the most common FAQs and my responses.  

1.  Is there enough business in equine law to make a living?  

The answer to this is a resounding "yes"!  I honestly do not believe the state in which you live will dictate this, either.  I left a big firm 3 years ago and have been exclusively handling equine matters since then.  I now have more business than I know what to do with.  And I *only* take equine cases. I truly believe that the smaller your niche is, the bigger your market becomes.  I also believe there is enough work for a lawyer to have a niche practice *within* equine law!

 2.  Do your clients pay you?

Yes.  I do handle some pro-bono cases by choice but my clients do pay and I have a competitive hourly rate. Getting paid for your work has nothing to do with the industry your client is involved in.  This comes down to running your firm like a business.  

3.  What kinds of stuff does an equine lawyer do?

I think it depends on what kinds of matters you're drawn to.  While I can handle most types of equine-related matters,  I do a lot of  trial work.  I was a litigator at the big firm so I was trained at the big firm for 6 years to try civil lawsuits.  I represent horse owners in several main types of lawsuits, including 1) possessory disputes / recovery of horses being wrongfully held by someone; 2) enforcement of liens on horses; and 3) sales disputes (where the buyer is suing the seller for fraud, DTPA, breach of warranty).  I represent individuals almost exclusively.  I don't do any criminal (i.e. cruelty cases) because they are not civil matters.  If you're interested in criminal, you can get a job with the county prosecuting those cases (think "Animal Cops").  Equine lawyer Julie Fershtman(Michigan) often represents the horse owner's liability insurance company when someone sues a boarding facility or trainer, for example, in a personal injury matter.  She has written a lot of books and you need to buy those and read them if you have not already done so.  Joel Turner, an exceptional lawyer and person, often represents huge Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky in stallion syndications, racing syndications, and major business transactions.

 

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