Guest Post: Top Ten Pre-Purchase Exam Considerations

As a follow-up to last Thursday's post, Tips for Equine Pre-Purchase Exams, the following is a guest post by veteran Kentucky equine lawyer, Joel B. Turner, with valuable information concerning pre-purchase exams and other steps buyers can take to protect their interests in a horse sale transaction.

"As a 'horse lawyer', people usually do not call me to tell me how happy they are with their newly- purchased horses.

One of the most common calls from potential new clients (i.e. the variety that is extremely unhappy and ready to litigate) involves the post purchase discovery of a serious soundness issue. Recently during one such call I rudely interrupted the caller to interject, "Excuse me, but let me guess which joint is causing your horse an issue?" My guess was correct and the caller was dumbfounded. While it was the first for her, the same sorts of issues crop up time after time in my world.

How do you protect yourself in a situation like this? 

a) Have a veterinarian, your veterinarian, perform a thorough pre-purchase examination; and

b) have an experienced lawyer prepare a contract to close the loopholes by obtaining proper warranties/ representations from the seller. 

The combination of these two steps should provide adequate protection from the possible deceptions that so often turn an excited purchaser of a new horse into a disgruntled, if not disillusioned, victim and caretaker of an unsound horse.

Top ten pre-purchase exam considerations:

1.            Is the vet performing the exam absolutely free from any conflict of interest or possible undue influence? Make sure the vet (and any vet who is a member or employee of his/her group or practice) has never performed any services for the seller. Do not, under any circumstances, ask the seller to refer you to a vet to perform the pre-purchase exam or consult about radiographs, ultrasound images, etc.

2.            Is the veterinarian performing the pre-purchase exam willing to promptly (within 24 hours) provide a written report of his findings and make all radiographs and scans available digitally for the potential purchaser to use to obtain a second opinion, if necessary?

3.            Is the veterinarian willing to review all the vet records obtained from the seller and watch the horse being ridden (preferably by the potential purchaser) as part of the pre-purchase evaluation for soundness/coordination-neurological issues?

4.            Does the vet know how much money you intend to pay for and the purpose for which you are purchasing the horse? Share the purchase price with the vet and ask the vet to assume you are buying the horse for resale; if you want the highest level of scrutiny and are willing to pay for it, this request will put the vet on notice of your intentions and encourage a much closer look.

5.            Is the seller willing to provide all veterinary records (including all medications dispensed, radiographs, ultrasounds or nuclear scintigraphy, i.e. "bone scans" performed) for the last 18 months to two years as well as any other "therapy" records such as acupuncture, massage, shock wave, hyperbaric chamber, etc. for review by you and your vet prior to the purchase decision?

6.            Is the seller prepared to represent that, at the time of the pre-purchase exam, the horse is not under the influence of any medication, is not being treated with any substance to address any past or present physical condition experienced by the horse and is willing to allow the veterinarian to take a blood sample for drug testing to verify the accuracy of this representation?

7.            Has the horse been examined by a vet in connection with a potential purchase within the last year?

8.            Is the seller willing to represent that the horse has not had any surgery or any intra articular injections of any substance (including without limitation, corticosteroids, blocking agents or hyaluronic acid) during the seller's ownership, other than those disclosed by the seller, or if such surgeries or "joint' injections have been performed upon the horse and are disclosed, is the seller willing to identify all of the dates when such procedures were performed and what substances were injected into which joints?

9.            Is the veterinarian willing (and capable) to effectively communicate to the potential buyer the significance of the findings and provide an opinion as to the functional effect of these findings in writing promptly after the examination is completed?

10.          Is the veterinarian sufficiently experienced with the particular type of riding that the potential purchaser intends to do and the kind of work that the horse has been doing, to provide the potential purchaser with a high level of confidence that the vet understands the amount and level of work the horse will have to perform to fulfill the buyer's intended use?

This list is not exhaustive and does not address such issues as pre-purchase considerations for future breeding soundness of the horse. It is focused upon the veterinarian's performance of the pre-purchase exam for a performance horse, and the seller's willingness to make reasonable disclosures of the horse's condition. This list has a particularly narrow focus on determining if there are any pre-existing issues that could lead to unsoundness making the horse incapable in the future of performing the tasks for which it is being purchased.

In this era when aggressive veterinary intervention with lameness issues, (particularly with the prevalent use of intra articular injections of corticosteroids), is far more common, latent defects in horses may be hidden even from the experienced examining vet, if proper due diligence is not performed in conjunction with the pre-purchase exam. The combination of a) the seller's reasonable disclosures in response to the purchaser's requests coupled with, b) representations and warranties in a written purchase agreement, and c) a thorough pre-purchase veterinary exam performed by an unbiased, qualified vet working exclusively for the potential purchaser, may afford the best opportunity to avoid the heartbreak and financial loss caused by a post purchase discovery of a latent, undisclosed and undetected condition suffered by a horse after the sale is final."

 © Joel B. Turner of Frost Brown Todd LLC 2011

About the Author:  Joel B. Turner is a Kentucky attorney practicing equine-related law for the last 27 years. For Joel's full biography, click here.

Enforcability of "Soundness Guarantees"

A Texas caller bought a horse without getting a pre-purchase exam. The caller has emails from the seller that say the horse “never took a lame step” and was “always sound” while the seller owned the horse. The horse became lame about two months after the caller got him home, and the caller’s veterinarian speculated that the lameness was due to a condition that pre-dated the caller’s purchase of the horse. The caller wants to reverse the sale because the seller “guaranteed” the horse to be sound.

First, the horse trade is one where the phrase caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) applies. It is the buyer’s responsibility to get a pre-purchase exam before buying a horse. Every pre-existing condition cannot be determined in a routine pre-purchase exam. Thus, it is the buyer’s burden to ask the seller specific questions about soundness and suitability for the buyer’s intended purpose, and obtain access to all prior veterinary records on the horse from the seller prior to taking possession of the horse.

Unless the seller expressly promises a refund if the horse is found to be lame, or otherwise expressly guarantees or warranties that the horse is sound, a court will likely not find an express warranty of soundness to have existed. There are no implied warranties on livestock or their unborn young in Texas, as provided in Texas Uniform Commercial Code Section 2.316.

In the absence of an express warranty of soundness, the buyer will have to pursue a fraud action against the seller. To prevail on a fraud claim, the buyer must prove (among other elements): 1) the condition causing the lameness was there when she bought the horse (through a veterinarian’s opinion); and 2) the previous owner knew about the condition at the time of the sale and intended to defraud her.

Plaintiffs lawyers also like to bring horse sale actions under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act ("DTPA") or similar consumer protection statutes in other states.  The DTPA is attractive to plaintiffs because they allow for treble damages and attorneys' fees in some cases.

Fraud and DTPA cases are often "tough sledding'" because the buyer must prove the seller knew about the defect at the time the sale took place.  See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code Sec. 17.46(b)(24). 

Proving the seller knew about the defect is hard to do if there are no vet records or other evidence pre-dating the sale showing a diagnosis of the condition or treatments related to the condition.  

Take aways:  When buying a horse,

  • get a pre-purchase exam done by a vet you know and trust;
  • get a written Purchase & Sale agreement on each horse you buy. This agreement should contain a disclosure by the seller of all known faults with the horse;
  • and ask the seller specific questions about past injuries and illnesses;
  • ask the seller who their vets are and obtain releases from the seller so that you can get copies of prior vet records on the horse. Most veterinary practices adhere to confidentiality practices that prevent them from providing a buyer with acces to records that pre-date the buyer's purchase of the horse; and
  • if you think the seller is guaranteeing a horse sound, get the guarantee in writing.

 

Horse Seller Ordered to Pay Trail Riding Camp $100k in Damages

It pays to get your horse sale agreements in writing.  Both buyers and sellers should pay careful attention to the "warranties" section of any agreement. 

The Equine Law & Business Letter reports that a federal court in Arkansas ordered a seller to pay almost $100,000 in damages for breaching warranties in connection with the sale of 30 horses.

The court's opinion states that the owner of a riding camp in Colorado contracted with a rancher in Arkansas for the purchase of 30 trail riding horses that would be suitable for inexperienced riders and children.  The camp operator reached an oral agreement with the rancher that was later reduced to writing.  The written contract provided for the rancher to deliver 30 horses, all geldings, to the camp at a total cost of $30,000, and that the horses would be in excellent condition and trained as trail horses.

According to the opinion, all but four of the horses that were delivered were either unsuitably trained, too young (25 of the horses were 2 years old and one of the horses was 17 months old), or stallions.  Allegedly, only 2 of the 30 horses were suitable for trail riding.  The camp operator ended up selling 22 of the unsuitable horses, and one of the horses died.  She sued the rancher for breach of warranties, breach of contract, deceptive trade practices, fraud and deceit.

After a two-day bench trial, the court found in favor of the camp operator.  Specifically, the court concluded that at the time the contract was formed, the rancher "knew of the particular purpose for which the horses were required.  He knew that [the camp operator] was relying on his skill and judgment to select and furnish suitable horses."  Because the implied warranties of merchantability and suitability for a given purpose were not excluded from the written contract, the court found that the rancher breached both warranties.  

The court awarded the camp operator $9,914.61 for her net loss on the sales transaction, plus $3,276.60 for incidental damages (including transportation, wormer and veterinary expenses).  The camp was also awarded $71,700 in lost profits attributable to not having enough horses to operate the business at full capacity for one season.    Lost profits attributable to later years were disallowed because the court reasoned that one year provided the camp operator "ample time to buy horses."

The case is Manula, et al v. Wheat, No. 4:06CV01107JLH, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Western Division, October 5, 2007.

For more information, see the November-December 2007 issue of Equine Law & Business Letter.

Legal Tips for Purchasers at Horse Auctions

You do not have to risk being the victim of fraud or other legal issues when you set out to buy a horse at auction. Listed below are some ways prospective buyers can protect their interests and their equine investments:

1. Choose the Right Agent.  No license is required for bloodstock agents to conduct business. Therefore, literally anyone who wants to call themselves a bloodstock agent can do so. It is thus essential that you check references before enlisting a bloodstock agent.  Any auction company issuing a catalog will be willing to offer names of trusted agents in the area. You can also screen agents through an advocate organization, such the Texas Thoroughbred Association, by requesting references. Finally, ask others in the industry about the reputation and character of your candidates. There will be reluctance on the part of many in the industry to make less than complimentary remarks about an individual. Instead, they may refer you to someone else or offer an evasive answer; which can provide you some clues.


2. Establish Agreement with Trainer or Other Advisor Before the Sale.  Trainers or boarding farm managers often provide advice to buyers in selecting racing or breeding prospects. Once a sale is consummated, however, the buyer does not always guarantee that the trainer or breeding farm manager will have the opportunity to train or board the prospect.  If you call upon a trainer or breeding farm manager to provide advice with respect to a racing or breeding prospect, you should provide, and follow through with, an agreement with such advisors before the sale as to what the compensation and/or boarding or training opportunity is implicit in the business arrangement with the advisor.

3. Avoid Undisclosed Dual Agency Problems.  “Dual Agency” is defined by TOBA’s Sales Integrity Program as, “the practice of an agent accepting a commission from the buyer for purchasing/bidding on the horse on the buyer's behalf and also accepting any commission or other commercial benefit from any party involved with the selling/consigning of the same animal, without disclosing this.”   The most common dual agency practice is a pre-arranged agreement between the agent for the buyer and the agent for the seller that establishes a secret price for a horse prior to the sale, and then bidding up the price and dividing any overage between the agent and the consignor.   Avoid dual agency by getting a written agreement with your agent, or use the forms posted on the Sales Integrity Program website at: www.salesintegrity.org. Your agreement should include amount of commissions, and an agreement that the agent will fully disclose all commissions for every transaction.

4. Familiarize Yourself with Limited Warranties in Conditions of Sale.  Major Thoroughbred auction companies recognize extenuating circumstances that allow buyers to return a horse if the horse has a condition or conditions of which the buyer was unaware at the time of purchase (“limited warranties”). The limited warranties are stated in the front of each catalog under “Conditions of Sale.”   Some examples of conditions auction companies might warranty include: breathing problems, vision problems, pregnancy (if mare declared to be in foal), cribbing, and spinal ataxia (a/k/a “wobbler syndrome”) in yearlings or weanlings, and bone warranties.

The warranties in the sales conditions have a very strict time limit which expire at different times (either 24 or 48 hours) after the sale or upon removal from the grounds (whichever comes first).
Make sure you are aware of all the sales conditions and limited warranties for a particular auction prior to bidding on a horse, as you will be bound by the conditions of sale whether you have read them or not. You should also listen to all announcements made from the auction stand prior to the sale of the horse, as there are also some conditions and warranties that must be announced at the time of sale.

5. Know When Title and Risk Pass to You.  Both title and risk pass to the winning bidder at the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer. The winning bidder becomes responsible for the horse and its actions at that moment. Horses must be removed from the sales grounds within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the sale. Taking possession of the horse constitutes delivery and acceptance. Under most conditions of sale, the purchaser’s right to rescind a sale pursuant to the warranties in the conditions of sale is prefaced upon veterinary examination occurring on the grounds.  Consequently, it’s imperative that before moving the horse, a veterinarian determines that the horse does not have any conditions that would allow the sale to be rescinded under the conditions of sale.