Judge Judy Awards Zero Damages in Horse Injury Case

On Friday, February 3, 2012, CBS aired the trial of horse owner Deborah Dobbs vs. horse trainer Sharon Jeffco on the show Judge Judy, in a case involving alleged injury to a horse at the hands of a trainer.  This case has caused quite a stir in the horse community, possibly because of the unique nature of the alleged injuries to the horse.

Dobbs sued Jeffco for $5,000 (the jurisdictional limit on Judge Judy), alleging that her 5-year-old mare, “Misty”, sustained severe tongue lacerations due to Jeffco’s training methods. Dobbs specifically complained that Jeffco used an “ill-fitting bit”. Dobbs posted this photo of the alleged injuries on Facebook  [CAUTION: photo is graphic].  Dobbs admitted that she was present during the entire training session in question. 

During the trial on Judge Judy, Jeffco alleged that Misty had the cuts on her tongue before Jeffco started training her, but Jeffco was unaware of the wounds until they were reopened and started bleeding during the course of Jeffco’s final training session. Jeffco brought a counterclaim against Dobbs for defamation and business disparagement. Jeffco did not get to put on her full case during the trial on Judge Judy, but she posted this statement with supporting documents on her website. 

The bit was not shown during the trial.  As far as I know, Jeffco has not posted a photo anywhere of the bit she used on Misty during the incident in question. But a vet report included in Jeffco’s statement about what happened indicated that it was a “solid shank bit.”

This case left me wondering, “can any bit really cause this much damage during a short period of time?” I asked professional horseman Liz Payne of Unity Equestrian Arts, LLC what she thought about the evidence revealed in the trial itself. According to Payne,

There is no excuse for a tongue to be cut, ever.  The amount of damage to this tongue is hard to believe.  In over 40 years of training horses I have never seen anything like this, in fact I have never seen a cut tongue.  I have unanswered questions.  Someone is responsible for the damage to the horse.  The sorting out who caused this horrific damage seems to be the difficult challenge.  There is never an excuse for damaging a horse, physically or mentally.”

Without opining on who was liable for the horse's injuries, the judge awarded zero damages to both parties on their claims. Below are some of the reasons (potential litigants, take note!):

1) Neither party brought a veterinarian with them to the trial. Only Dobbs had a report from a veterinarian who actually treated the horse. The judge seemed to lend little credence to the reports from Jeffco's vets who had not seen or treated the injuries.  Parties to horse injury suits should always bring a vet with them to testify, and preferably one who saw the horse as opposed to someone who drew conclusions from documents, photographs, radiographs, etc.

2)  Dobbs witnessed the incident in question, but she did not leave the premises with her horse as soon as she allegedly believed that Jeffco was using abusive methods. This admission detracted from Ms. Dobbs’s credibility with the judge, especially with respect to Dobbs's allegations that Jeffco tied the mare's head down and used a longe whip on the horse.

3)  Jeffco paid Dobbs $953.50 in restitution in a related criminal animal cruelty proceeding. Judge Judy ruled that Jeffco waived her defamation claim when she paid the restitution to the plaintiff.  The judge further ruled that Dobbs had been fully compensated by the restitution check in the criminal case, and therefore awarded her $0 damages.  The effects on a civil case of actions taken in a related criminal case is something clients should discuss with their counsel before taking action.

4)  Jeffco and Dobbs repeatedly make comments to one-another during the trial.  This agitated the judge (as it is considered unacceptable behavior in any courtroom).  As such, the parties' conduct at trial may have made the judge more inclined to give both parties nothing.  

I in no way condone the use of training methods that might cause these types of injuries to a horse.  But it should be noted that trainers might protect themselves from unfounded claims of horse injury or abuse by having all training clients sign a written training agreement, whereby the client releases the trainer of liability should the horse be injured in training and/or if the training does not achieve the desired results.

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How to Cold-Call an Attorney

When you find yourself in need of a lawyer, it’s always best to either call on an attorney whom you already know, or to call someone to whom you were referred by a person you trust. 

Because equine law is such a specialized niche practice, you might not already know an equine practitioner and you might not be able to get a referral from a trusted source. In these cases, your only option might be to “cold-call” an equine attorney whom you found through a Google search or on a social media outlet.

Once you’ve found the name of an equine attorney you’d like to call about your legal matter, here are some guidelines to consider before you make the first contact:

1)         Prepare for the Call. If you have been served with papers, look at the papers carefully and determine which court the matter was filed in, whether it is civil or criminal, and what the court is asking you to do and when. If you have received a demand letter, figure out what exactly the other party is demanding of you and by when. Have the papers in front of you when you call the lawyer, and have a plan lined up on how you can fax or email the papers to the lawyer immediately if necessary.

2)         Think About What You Want From the Lawyer Before the Call. If you are calling a lawyer to talk about suing someone, think about how to explain the problem and what you want in four sentences or less. The lawyer will follow up with questions pertinent to the legal issues raised by your short summary of the issue. 

A good example of a summary to start a conversation with a lawyer: “I think I want to sue the guy who sold me my horse. Two days after I got him home, he was crippled. My vet says the problem existed before I bought him and that he will never be sound again.”  Let the lawyer take it from there.  Try to refrain from going on tangents when you are answering the lawyer's questions.

Before the initial call, think about whether you are willing to spend money on an attorney to pursue your claims. If the answer is “no”, your first question to the lawyer should be whether you can schedule a paid consult to help you investigate your claims, or whether the particular lawyer takes contingency cases.

3)         Be Prepared to Listen.  It is not the lawyer’s job to tell you what you want to hear. If you disagree with what the lawyer is telling you about your case, refrain from arguing with the lawyer (doing so will make him not want to take you on as a client).  It is best to listen and consider what the lawyer is telling you, and ask follow up questions if necessary. You should call another attorney for a second opinion if you have doubts about what a lawyer tells you about your case. Be mindful of the fact that if you insist on a lawyer who will only tell you want you want to hear, you might find yourself being represented by someone who is (1) a pushover, (2) dishonest, or (3) desperate for work. None of these scenarios will be good for you in the long run.

4)         Think About Timing.  You should not wait until 5 days before your trial or appearance date before calling the lawyer.  If you need a lawyer to draft an agreement or set up a business entity for you, you should call a lawyer at least two weeks before the work needs to be completed. Sometimes a task that you might think will only take a couple of days for a lawyer will take more time, because the lawyer has work that has to be completed for other clients who hired the lawyer before your matter came in.

Related Post: Is My Horse Case Worth Pursuing?

Hat tip to Ken at Popehat for providing the inspiration for this post.

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Is My Horse Case Worth Pursuing?

Anybody can file a lawsuit; the question is whether you can win the lawsuit and collect the judgment. I am writing this post for the benefit of all potential plaintiffs in horse cases who would like some guidance to determine whether a horse case is worth pursuing. To be worth pursuing, a horse case must satisfy five elements: (1) Money, (2) Damages, (3) Liability, (4) Causation, and (5) Credibility.

1)         Money. Our civil justice system is not about revenge or even justice…it’s about money, because money is virtually the only way a civil court can compensate a plaintiff. Potential plaintiffs need to consider how much money it would take to pursue the case versus the potential amount they can actually recover from the defendant. As a general rule of thumb, the amount in controversy needs to be at least $25,000 to make it worth engaging counsel to prosecute a civil case. In many cases, plaintiffs will not be awarded their attorneys’ fees even if they win the case. The potential defendant needs to either have an insurance policy that would apply to the potential claims or otherwise have assets that are not exempt from attachment on a judgment.

2)         Damages. In a good horse case, a plaintiff can prove the defendant damaged them and can put a dollar amount on the damages. If the plaintiff cannot quantify their damages, the lawyer usually cannot either. Expert witnesses can sometimes be hired (usually at the client’s expense) to figure out what the damages are. But sometimes, after spending money on an expert, clients don’t like the answer the expert comes up with. Therefore, the best cases are those where the amount of damages is fairly simple to quantify.

3)         Liability.         A good horse case is one where it can be proven that the defendant is liable for the damages that the plaintiff incurred. For a defendant to be liable, a plaintiff needs to be able to prove that the defendant either breached the terms of an agreement with the plaintiff, or was liable in tort to plaintiff (common torts in horse cases include negligence, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty).

4)         Causation.      The plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant's actionable conduct caused the money damages identified by the plaintiff. The plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendants’ actions, and not some other person or event, caused the damages complained of. In the best cases, the plaintiff can pinpoint the person or entity that damaged them, and can explain what the defendant did or failed to do that ultimately caused the damages.

5)         Credibility. The credibility of a plaintiff is often the most important element of a horse case. Does your story pass the “smell test”? Put your emotions aside for a moment and ask yourself whether your demands are reasonable given the applicable customs and conventions as they currently exist in the horse industry. I recommend talking to others who have played the defendant’s role (i.e. horse trader, veterinarian, trainer) about your case. If those who have been in the defendant’s shoes before agree with your position, chances are your story will be credible to a jury.

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