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.

Parker County Jury Finds for Vet in Welk v. Foland

As I’ve previously stated in this prior post, negligence and malpractice lawsuits against veterinarians are generally “tough sleddin’” for plaintiffs in Texas. Would-be plaintiffs who wish to sue their veterinarians often face major obstacles such as: 1) proving damages; 2) obtaining effective expert testimony; 3) paying litigation expenses where there is a low likelihood of recovery; and 4) finding a lawyer experienced in representing plaintiffs in veterinary malpractice suits.

Last year’s defense verdict in the lawsuit brought by Larry and Lynn Welk against Dr. Jeffrey A. Foland and Weatherford Equine Medical Center, P.C. illustrates some of these difficulties.

If Larry Welk’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because his father was the famous bandleader Lawrence Welk, host of the long-lived Lawrence Welk Show. Larry and Lynn Welk’s Champagne Ranch, based in Malibu, California, is in fact named after the “champagne music” made famous by Larry’s father.   

The Welks’ lawsuit, filed in the 415th District Court of Parker County, Texas (Judge Graham Quisenberry, presiding), centered around the alleged stifle injuries sustained by their young stallion, Juan Bad Cat. The Welks alleged that Dr. Foland had injected the horse’s stifles and performed a surgery without first consulting with the Welks or the horse’s previous veterinarian. The horse's prior veterinarian was the late Dr. Van E. Snow of Santa Ynez, California.  According to the Welks’ suit, they lost the opportunity to compete and syndicate Juan Bad Cat due to Dr. Foland’s alleged negligence and malpractice. The Welks sought damages of approximately $3 million against Dr. Foland and his clinic.

Dr. Foland and his clinic filed counterclaims against the Welks, seeking damages for an unpaid veterinary bill, attorneys’ fees, and court costs. 

The Welks were represented by Robert Talaska and Theodore G. Skarbowski, both based in Houston, Texas. Talaska’s firm, according to its website, specializes in human birth injuries. Skarbowski’s firm assists clients with such matters as National Firearms Act gun trusts, commercial litigation, contracts, and estate planning-- per its website

Dr. Foland and his veterinary clinic were represented by Dr. Donald A. Ferrill of Brown, Pruitt, Peterson & Wambsganss, P.C. in Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Ferrill is both a licensed veterinarian and an attorney who regularly represents veterinarians.

After a jury trial in September 2011 that lasted about 9 days, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Dr. Foland and his clinic for approximately $192,000 for an unpaid vet bill and attorneys’ fees. The jury awarded zero damages to the Welks.

I recently got the opportunity to catch up with Don Ferrill, the lawyer who represented Dr. Foland and his clinic, to talk about the evidence revealed in the case. According to Ferrill, “Dr. Snow diagnosed and had been treating the horse for what he believed was a congenital condition in its right stifle since it was approximately one year of age.  The colt was not any worse off after Dr. Foland treated him than he was before the treatment.” 

The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, when pressed for details on cross examination, gave testimony that helped the defense, according to Ferrill. 

“The evidence showed that Dr. Foland did consult with Dr. Snow’s office prior to performing surgery on the horse, and that Dr. Snow advised Dr. Foland to do the surgery at issue,” said Ferrill. Darren Simpkins, the Welks’ horse trainer who was boarding and training Juan Bad Cat in Texas at the time, testified that he gave Dr. Foland permission to perform the stifle injections, according to Ferrill. “These injections [Vetalog and hyaluronic acid] did not numb pain in the horse’s limbs, did not contribute to lameness, and were the type that performance horses typically receive for routine maintenance,” said Ferrill.   The Welks also had Dr. Foland perform a colic surgery on one of their other horses after the lawsuit was filed, according to Ferrill.

“Prior to the depositions of Darren Simpkins and his wife, Kelly Simpkins, Ted Skarbowski warned Kelly Simpkins that the Welks would sue them if they testified that they gave Dr. Foland permission to perform the injections”, according to Ferrill. “Darren Simpkins nonetheless testified in his deposition that he gave Dr. Foland permission to inject the horse, and the Welks sued the Simpkinses in federal court for breach of fiduciary duty”, Ferrill said. The federal case against the Simpkinses was later dismissed because the statute of limitations on the Welks’ claims against the Simpkinses had already run. 

As an aside, I briefly discussed the Simpkins case and its significance in this prior post

In Judge McBryde's Memorandum Opinion and Order of March 10, 2010 in the federal case, Judge McBryde stated on page 20, “To put the matter mildly, the testimony given by plaintiffs on February 10, 2010, is suspect.”  He then goes on to explain how the Welks' deposition testimony in the case against Dr. Foland directly contradicts their depositions in the federal court case.

According to the Champagne Ranch website, Juan Bad Cat stood at stud in 2011 at ESMS in Weatherford, Texas for a fee of $1,500 plus chute fee.

In December 2011, Judge Quisenberry reduced the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to Dr. Foland by the jury as a result of a JNOV (judgment notwithstanding the verdict) motion filed by the Welks’ lawyers. Nonetheless, the final judgment still ordered the Welks to pay damages to Dr. Foland and his clinic, and the Welks took nothing on their claims. According to Ferrill, the Welks also had to pay their own attorneys’ fees pursuant to their fee agreements with their lawyers.

Case Information: Larry and Lynn Welk v. Dr. Jeffrey A. Foland and Weatherford Equine Medical Center P.C., Cause No. CV-07-1322 in the 415th District Court of Parker County, Texas; Lynn Welk, et al. v. Darren Simpkins, et al.; Case 4:09-CV-00456-A in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth Division).

**Note: Thank you to the readers who requested that I cover this case on the Equine Law Blog last fall after the jury reached its verdict. Generally, my policy is to not comment on a case until after its full and final disposition, which in this case happened in late December, 2011. Thank you for reading and for submitting topic suggestions!**

Want to Sue Your Vet? Read This First.

Denton County CourthouseAttorney Gregory M. Dennis gave an excellent presentation on Veterinary Malpractice at the 2010 National Conference on Equine Law.  Greg’s topic could not have been more timely or relevant. We receive multiple calls per week from horse owners wishing to sue their veterinarian for injury to or the death of their horse. 

My firm does not sue veterinarians due to conflicts purposes.  Although we can’t take these cases, we often consult with horse owners who are considering a veterinary malpractice case. If you are considering a lawsuit against a veterinarian, here are some things you should consider:

We usually tell people that most (but not all) veterinary malpractice cases are difficult for plaintiffs for two main reasons:

1)      It is hard to find a veterinarian who will testify against another veterinarian; and

2)      Horses are personal property (chattel) under the law. As such, a plaintiff usually cannot recover pain & suffering damages (for the horse or the owner) or damages based on the sentimental value of the horse.

The burden of proof in a veterinary malpractice action is always on the plaintiffFackler v. Genetzky, 595 N.W.2d 884, 889-90 (1990) appeal after remand 638 N.W.2d 521 (2002).

The plaintiff must prove:

1)      A veterinarian’s acts or omissions failed to meet the standard of care;

2)      Acts or omissions were negligently performed;

3)      Negligently performed acts or injuries caused the animal’s injury or death; and

4)      As a result, the plaintiff was damaged.

See Eades, Jury Instructions on Medical Issues, VETERINARIANS, 7-20 (6th ed. 2004).

To establish element number one (failure to meet the standard of care) the plaintiff must get another veterinarian to testify against the veterinarian being sued for malpractice. Downing v. Gully, 915 S.W.2d 181 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1996, writ denied). This is where a lot of people run into problems. They have trouble finding a vet to testify as to what the standard of care was, and that their veterinarian breached that standard of care.

Note: a veterinary negligence case is different from a veterinary malpractice case. If you are suing for ordinary negligence only, a veterinarian might not have to be called to testify.

Example: A healthy horse comes in for his annual vaccinations. A veterinarian leaves a door open and allows a horse to get into the feed room. The horse eats a whole bag of feed and then colics and dies as a result.

Another tough element in many cases is element number 3 (causation). This is especially tough in cases where the horse died. If a horse dies in the care of the vet and the plaintiff wishes to prevail on a malpractice suit, the plaintiff needs to prove that the horse would not have died anyway (but for the vet’s malpractice).

Damages typically awarded in vet malpractice cases in Texas and most states are 1) loss of animal’s market value or the cost of replacement, and 2) veterinary expenses. Because attorney fees are generally unrecoverable on a vet malpractice case, the case might cost more to bring than the horse's fair market value.

That said, states such as Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey to some extent, as well as the District of Columbia have expressed a willingness to accept claims requesting damages beyond market value. 

This post is not meant to discourage people from bringing "bad" vets to justice. It is meant to give potential plaintiffs an idea of the legal framework surrounding veterinary malpractice cases in general.

Take aways: 1) Use good vets that you know and trust; if you don't know a good vet, ask other horse owners in the area for a referral; 2) if your horse is valuable, get major medical and mortality insurance on the horse; and 3) if you suspect malpractice, your first call should be another veterinarian so you can get an idea of whether or not the standard of care was breached. That will be your ultimate issue.

For additional information on veterinary malpractice suits, there is a helpful article  by David S. Favre published online by the Animal Legal & Historical Center.

******

If you are a veterinarian who has testified for a plaintiff in the past or would be willing to testify for a plaintiff, please contact my office as soon as you can so I can refer you to horse owners and other lawyers who may need your services. My number is 817-878-3541. Thank you!

**A special thank you to Greg Dennis, whose presentation materials provided valuable references for this post.

Photo credit:  Courthouselover (Flikr)

Highlights from 2010 National Conference on Equine Law

I just returned from the 2010 National Conference on Equine Law , held last week in Lexington, Kentucky. This was my fifth year in a row to attend the conference, and it was a great year.  The conference had a record number of attendees--180 practitioners from all over the United States. This year's lineup of speakers and topics was the best I've seen so far in five years.

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak this year.  My topic was "A Multi-Jurisdictional Comparison of Equine Liens".  With only 30 minutes to speak, I only had time to cover Texas, Kentucky, and Florida.  However, I hope the materials are helpful by reference to every practitioner or horseman regardless of state.  My handout can be accessed in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2.  Click here for a copy of my PowerPoint presentation.

Takeaways from my presentation:  1) no matter what state you're in, and regardless of whether your state requires it, always send written notice directly to the debtor (if you can find them) before foreclosing on an equine lien; 2) if you want to do a private lien sale under the UCC foreclosure provisions, make sure you can prove to a judge or jury that your debtor was engaged in a "farming operation" (i.e. they are in the horse business--not just a hobbyist); and 3) there may be multiple liens on the horse at issue.  Be aware of which lien has priority.  The person in possession of the horse almost always has the most bargaining power, regardless of priority.

Ned Bonnie, a long-time Kentucky horseman, equine lawyer, and graduate of Yale undergrad and law school, told me he also attaches (seizes via court order) the original registration papers to a horse when a lien dispute arises.  I like this idea, though it requires filing a lawsuit in Texas.

Other highlights from this year's conference:

1) Frank T. Becker's annual Equine Case Law Update--The "case of the year" (the year's most wacky or novel case) was State v. Coates, 2009 WL 2414334.  Frank calls it a "silly case of no legal significance", but interesting nonetheless!  It involved a case of "road rage" between a jogger and a horseman fighting over who should yield a pathway.  The jogger intentionally startled the horse and ended up getting arrested.  Horsemen 1, joggers 0.

2) Ted Martin and April Neihsl talked about the recoverability of damages in equine cases.  Ted stressed the importance of determining the fair market value of the horse at issue and said it is usually determined by 1) expert testimony; 2) previous sales prices and offers to buy; and 3) the owner's testimony (in some cases).

April addressed the recoverability of lost profits, sentimental, and punitive damages.  April stressed that when proving up lost profits, it is essential that the plaintiff had income in the past and that the focus is on net profits rather than gross profits.  Also, while sentimental damages are rarely awarded in equine cases, some states (Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Tennessee, and Utah) allow them by statute.  

3) Bob Webb and Chris Coffman discussed the IRS's "National Research Program" that is targeting many horse businesses.  The key issue to survive these audits is to prove that the horse operation is a for-profit business, or a trade at the very least.

4) Doyice and Mary Cotten discussed changes in the law affecting the enforceability of liability waivers.  The most frequent causes of liability waiver failure are, according to the Cottens: 1) statutory prohibition of waivers in some states (such as Montana and Louisiana); 2) lack of clarity in the waiver (use of phrase "all liability"); 3) inclusion of waiver in entry form or membership contract; 4) waiver is overbroad or too narrow; and 5) surprisingly--the party to be released is not named in the waiver!

5) Paul Husband presented on the law determining whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee.  Paul stressed the importance of this issue as 6,000 employment tax audits are planned as part of the IRS National Research Program.  The Obama administration has budgeted $25 million to target misclassification of workers as independent contractors.  If an employer misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, they can receive the "100% penalty" (the person with signature authority on checks for the employer personally pays the employee's tax and serves time in jail).

6) Jay Hickey of the American Horse Council addressed current federal legislation affecting the horse industry.  The Economic Stimulus Bill contains at least one thing that might benefit horse owners--$1.7 billion that can be used for the maintenance and construction of equine trials.  The AHC encourages local organizations to contact district offices to make sure funds are appropriated to horse-related projects.

7) Julie Fershtman discussed liability issues surrounding equine shows and events.  Because most shows or rodeos do not get each spectator to sign a liability waiver, it is important that event sponsors ask their insurance company about insuring against spectator liability.  Furthermore, it was noted that many accidents at equine activities do not involve horses at all, thus bringing them outside the Equine Activity Acts.  Sponsor insurance should, if possible, cover all premises liability issues...not just accidents involving horses.

8) Krysia Carmel Nelson and Tamara Tucker addressed liability issues in boarding and training arrangements.  They suggested including the following clauses in some boarding/training agreements: 1) "training disclaimer" to protect against claim that bad training diminished value of horse; 2) "risk of loss/indemnity" provision to curtail claims that the trainer or boarding facility injured the horse; 3) "veterinary power of attorney" to protect boarding facility from claim that veterinary services were not authorized and ruined horse; 4) "abandonment clause" holding that after a certain period of time, a horse becomes property of the boarding facility/trainer if the owner doesn't pay, make contact, or move the horse.

9) Bruce Smith and Mike Meuser covered fraud in horse sales transactions.  They addressed the crucial issue of a seller's duty to disclose a known defect in a horse.  A duty to disclose can arise when 1) a sales contract requires it; 2) a seller voluntarily makes a partial disclosure that is misleading; 3) the seller knows the buyer has the wrong impression about something related to the horse; 4) a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists; and 5) the seller knows the horse has dangerous propensities.

10) Gregory Dennis, a practitioner who specializes in veterinary malpractice and disciplinary proceedings, discussed various issues surrounding veterinary malpractice cases involving horses.  His presentation highlighted the difference between general negligence in veterinary actions versus veterinary malpractice.

If you would like further information about this year's conference, please click on the individual presenters' names discussed above to find their contact information, or contact me for details.

The Statute of Limitations in Veterinary Malpractice Actions

Veterinarians may have several legal defenses to claims of malpractice. One of the most important procedural defenses is that of the statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a state law that puts a limit on the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit, usually from the time the injury occurred or when he or she discovered the injury. If the statute of limitations runs out before the lawsuit is filed, then no legal action may be taken.  Any attempt to do so will result in the judge dismissing the suit without hearing the merits of the claim. In order to "toll" the statute of limitations (i.e. make the limitations period stop running), the plaintiff must actually file suit.  Demand letters sent to the vet or the verbal notification of a future claim do not act to toll the statute of limitations.

With veterinary malpractice cases for injury to or death of a horse, the applicable statute of limitations may be based on claims for injury to personal property in that state, as domestic animals are considered personal property of the owner.  Those cases usually have a statute of limitations of four (4) years.

For states that include veterinarians under the list of professions covered by malpractice statutes, they may be based upon statutes that set time limits for malpractice. These statues of limitations are usually shorter, typically two (2) years.

For instance, Georgia law provides a two (2) year statute of limitations for medical malpractice actions.  However, veterinarians are not included in the definition of malpractice actions, because those involve injuries to people only.  Georgia has a four (4) year statute of limitations for injuries to personal property, which would arguably apply to a veterinary malpractice claim brought in Georgia.

Importantly, the manner in which a plaintiff pleads his or her claim (i.e., whether he or she claims common negligence or malpractice) may dictate the statute of limitations.  If a negligence claim is not barred by limitations and a malpractice action is barred, a court would allow the negligence action to go forward and dismiss the malpractice action.

For more information on vet malpractice actions and the applicable statute of limitations, see Veterinarian Malpractice by Davis S. Favre.

Potential Law Suit Over Eight Belles?

Several people have asked me if I thought there would be  litigation over the death of Eight Belles after her second place finish at the 2008 Kentucky Derby on May 3.  Although animal rights activists staged a protest at the office of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority after the filly's death, I don't think there will be any litigation.  

The filly's death did not seem to be caused by the negligence or wrongdoing of any person or entity.

What did cause Eight Belles to break both front ankles?  According to the Wall Street Journal, Eight Belles' breakdown may have arisen from a variety of factors such as genetics, track surface, training methods, or medications.  Interestingly, Eight Belles and 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro were both descendants of Northern Dancer, a 1950s Thoroughbred whose racing career was cut short by leg injuries.

What is being done in the horse racing industry to prevent future breakdowns?  The Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, which first convened in 2006 after Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness, met again in Lexington March 17-18, 2008.  The Summit promulgated its recommendations to improve racehorse welfare, and those recommendations addressed the following issues:

  1. Track Surfaces--including research and development of synthetic (Polytrack) surfaces
  2. Catastrophic injuries
  3. Racing Medication & Drug Testing Laboratories
  4. Education--focusing on training methods
  5. Regulation--to establish uniform regulation of medication and integrity issues
  6. Solutions for unwanted Thoroughbreds
  7. Promote genetic diversity of the Thoroughbred

If the Summit's recommendations are implemented, huge positive changes in the Thoroughbred racing industry could be realized.  However, according to Dan Metzger, the President of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, "miracles will not happen overnight."

 

Does a Veterinarian Have to Treat Your Horse in an Emergency?

Someone recently asked me if he had a case against an equine surgery clinic that told his local vet during a telephone conversation to not send them the mare because they did not have room for her at the clinic.  The mare died 4 hours later of colic complications, and the owner stated that she would have lived if the vet clinic had admitted her and performed colic surgery.  The mare in that case was not a current patient of the clinic.  The owner would not have a valid claim against the clinic in that case.

The decision of whether to accept an animal as a patient is at the sole discretion of a veterinarian.  This rule is set forth in Article II.E. of the the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which applies to all veterinarians in the United States.  The Texas Rules of Professional Conduct for veterinarians codifies that rule for vets practicing in Texas.  Therefore, even in emergency situations, vets do not have to take your horse if, for example, you cannot pay for the treatment or they simply do not have time to treat your horse.

For a vet to be potentially liable to a horse owner for injury or death of their horse, a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) must first exist.  The VCPR is established when all of the following conditions are met:

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