When is a Bad Haircut Actionable?
Q: I loaned two ponies to a trainer to use in a pony camp and for possible purchase. After the camp was over, the trainer bought one pony and called me to come and pick up the other pony. When I arrived to pick up my pony, I found that its formerly one-foot-long mane had been roached and its long, flowing, thick tail cut to the hocks. I am totally frustrated because the trainer can say is Im sorry, I didn't know you wanted me to cut the mane and tail. I thought I was improving it for you under my barn standards.?span style="mso-spacerun: yes"> I lost a committed sale of over $2500 due to the drastic change in the pony's appearance. When I asked the trainer to pay for the pony, she told me that she couldn't pay for it, but would keep the pony at her barn until the mane and tail grow outwhich we all know will be over a year or more. What are my options, as no formal written contract was signed, and the verbal agreement was nothing more than here is a few loaner ponies for your school ?let me know which ones you want to buy at the rate of $2000-2500 in two weeks? Does care and custody apply in this case? Small claims ?
A: First, we have to determine whether you have suffered a loss. Whether a pony should have a roached mane and banged tail is a matter of personal taste, but it was not the trainer's judgment call to make unless you gave her permission to alter your pony's appearance. The key question is whether the pony's value has diminished (even temporarily) as a result of the trainer's actions. You state that you have lost a committed sale as a direct result of the pony's appearance, which suggests that the pony's value has indeed diminished. An equine appraiser could also provide an independent opinion about whether the pony's value has declined, and if so, by how much.
Let's assume that the pony's value has in fact diminished ?is the trainer liable? The trainer voluntarily took your pony into her custody, and you reasonably expected that the trainer would return the pony in the same condition in which the pony arrived. The trainer returned the pony to you in a condition of diminished value, and the trainer's actions were directly responsible for the decrease in value, so the trainer would likely be held responsible for your loss.
How would you recover your loss from the trainer? You have already taken the first step, which is to try and work out a settlement between the two of you. Now that you have a clearer idea of who should be responsible, it is probably worth your while to approach the trainer with a copy of this column and again try to work out the situation. If you fail to reach an agreement, you may want to pursue a claim in small claims court because the amount in controversy is less than $5,000 (the limit for California small claims).
What could you do to prevent these types of problems in the future? At ELS, we hear about a lot of similar cases where horses are returned in lesser condition than they arrived. Sometimes, it is a lease situation, other times, it is a sale trial, but in almost every case, there is no written agreement among the parties and the parties usually have very different ideas about who should be responsible for what. A written agreement can help you avoid misunderstandings by clarifying the parties?roles and responsibilities, and it is always better to find out before you drop off your horse that the potential buyer/lessor does not want to be responsible for accidents, lameness, colic, etc.