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Horse owners can be saddled with suits if their attorneys don’t advise them about laws that affect the equine industry. Preparing aspiring attorneys to give such advice is the purpose of a unique course that debuted this spring at the University of Texas School of Law. Bob Dawson, a UT law professor, and his wife, Jan, an attorney and president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety, teach the equine law course, which provides a broad overview of areas of the law that affect horse owners and the multibillion-dollar equine industry. The Dawsons say the two-credit course — offered as an elective for second- and third-year law students — is the only course of its kind offered in the country. Apparently, not even the home state for the Kentucky Derby offers such an option. Marty Heuerman, registrar at the University of Kentucky College of Law, says an equine law course taught by an adjunct professor was offered on an experimental basis several years ago but was not continued. Jan says her involvement with equines — in addition to being president of AAHS, she’s a prominent equestrian who shows horses and frequently serves as an expert witness in cases involving injuries caused by horses — gave her husband the idea for the course. Horses are big business in Texas. Bob, quoting from the March issue of the Land and Livestock Post, says the industry has a more than $11 billion a year impact on the Texas economy. At least 7 million horses are in the United States, he says, citing a survey by the American Horse Council. “People don’t think about the horse industry being that big, but it really is,” he says. The Dawsons worked together on the book for the course, “Cases and Materials on the Horse and the Law.” However, they approach the course from different perspectives. Bob looks at the cases reviewed by the class as a legal scholar. He received a law degree from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and an advanced law degree from the University of Wisconsin School of Law and has taught at the UT law school since 1967, specializing in criminal and juvenile law. “This is a new area for me,” he says. Jan, a UT law school graduate who spent three years practicing criminal law in Austin, has spent most of her life around horses and shows an Arabian and an Oldenburg in competitions. “I was probably 3 or 4 when I got my first pony,” she says. For Jan, the course offers an opportunity to teach lawyers some preventive law. An attorney who represents a children’s summer camp offering horseback riding to its young campers should be able to review the facility’s physical plant, how its program is written, and the staff training with an eye toward avoiding suits, she says. “It’s like a doctor thinking about preventive medicine,” Jan says. “What do you need to do to keep this camp from getting legally sick?” WHO’S LIABLE? Bob says the course covers various areas of law that deal with horse ownership: everything from tort law — who’s liable if a horse escapes from a pasture and collides with a car — to issues involving property, contracts, government regulations, insurance, employment and even some criminal law. One of the cases reviewed by the class, Bob says, is Sea Horse Ranch v. Superior Court of San Mateo County. In that case, a ranch corporation and its president were prosecuted for manslaughter in connection with a death caused by a horse that escaped from a corral allegedly because the fence was defective. The Court of Appeals of California, 1st Appellate District, Division 5, held in 1994 that the corporation could be held criminally liable for the conduct of its officers, agents or employees if they were negligent for not mending the fence. “Most attorneys, although they’re familiar with all of these areas of the law, are not accustomed to having a variable factor in there,” Jan says. “Where we know that there are certain predictable things about a horse and his behavior, the predictability is his unpredictability. So you have to look at all of these areas a little bit differently when you put this horse in it, and a lot of attorneys aren’t accustomed to that.” Among the issues covered in the course, Bob says, is what should be included in a boarding contract and what a stable can do when an owner refuses to pay a bill. The class discusses situations in which a stable can refuse to release a horse or even seize an animal if the owner doesn’t pay, he says. Jan says the course also covers contractual issues, such as the need for horse owners to have a contract with a stable to ensure that the services they expect are provided. Owners often have only “a handshake agreement” with a stable and can’t enforce it, she says. Another aspect of the course, Bob says, is the limited immunity afforded to equine professionals and activities in some states when accidents occur. Forty-four states, including Texas, have statutes designed to discourage what are thought to be frivolous suits, he says. The Texas law, Chapter 87.001 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code, draws the line between activities for which an equine professional can be held liable and activities to which liability doesn’t automatically attach because of the inherent risk of contact with a horse. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about these statutes,” Bob says. “They don’t solve all the problems of the industry.” Probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of these statutes, even among lawyers, is how they differ from state to state, Jan says. A lawyer who represents a show ring trainer who travels extensively should make the client aware of those differences, she says. The Dawsons admit they don’t always agree on the issues raised in the class, but Jan says that “makes for great discussions.” Twelve students are taking the course this spring, and the couple hopes to continue teaching it. Bob says he already has put in a request to offer the course again in the spring semester of 2003.

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