Wednesday, May 23, 2007
There Is No Free Lunch, Even in Pasture...
One of our callers today found themselves in a situation that arises fairly often in friendships among horse owners. The callers were keeping their horses in two different pastures and the land owners (who were at the time friends of theirs) had apparently offered them free pasture board. The horse owners had no written agreement with the property owners, because at the time, they were all friends and this was a friendly arrangement.
Now, the friendship had soured and the former friends had sold two of the horses, leading to the horse owners' call to our practice. What could they do?
We reviewed their state's agister's lien law with them and determined the land owners hadn't followed the required process prior to selling the horses, which means the horse owners now had legal claims for conversion (a civil form of theft). Their state's lien law had required the land owners to first notify the horse owners of the lien and then obtain a court order prior to selling the horses.
Because the horse owners thought the sold horses were worth approximately $5,000 each, we suggested they pursue their claims in their state's small claims court. Even though their state's small claims court limit was $4,000, filing two claims (one against each of the two land owners, as each one had sold one horse) made more sense than filing a regular civil suit for $5,000 because attorneys' fees for a regular civil case would likely far exceed $5,000.
Of course, legal cases are never as cut-and-dried as they sometimes sound. Accordingly, we noted the horse owners could expect the land owners to file counterclaims demanding payment of back board, because in such situations, it has been our experience that the land owners typically claim the arrangement was not in fact free, but that the horse owners had agreed to pay (and didn't do so). The horse owners should also expect the land owners to claim the horses were worth (much) less than $5,000 and therefore the horse owners should come to small claims prepared to prove value. For example, the horse owners could provide a bill of sale showing what they paid for the horses, or they could have a qualified equine appraiser prepare a written appraisal based on the horses' pedigree and show record.
On their day in small claims, the horse owners can expect a fairly vigorous argument, and the case will likely turn on which story the judge believes, particularly because there was no written agreement. What a sad ending to a friendship among horse people!