You just opened a letter written by a lawyer, and it accuses you of malpractice. The lawyer was hired by one of your customers named Bill. 

Three weeks ago Bill hired you to  shoe his horse, and he told you the horse had just been diagnosed with navicular disease. You carefully trimmed and shod the horse in a manner that Bill’s veterinarian recommended. Now, the lawyer accuses you of being negligent in your work and claims that you made Bill’s horse permanently lame.

Bill wants thousands of dollars from you, and his lawyer threatens that if you do not pay up soon, he will sue you. 

What do you do?

Farrier malpractice lawsuits are not common. Because we live in a litigious society, however, all farriers would be wise to beware — and aware — of the law.

Malpractice Or Professional Negligence?

Generally speaking, the law imposes a duty on professionals, such as farriers, to use reasonable skill, diligence and attention as may ordinarily be expected of a careful and skillful person in the same profession. If a shoeing client believes you have fallen short of this standard, he or she might have grounds to bring a legal action against you for professional negligence or malpractice.Farrier malpractice lawsuits are filed with far less frequency than lawsuits against health professionals who serve humans. The reasons for this are mainly economic: 

  • In most states, those who bring lawsuits involving professional malpractice in animal settings stand to win back far less than they would if the matter involved an injured human.
  • The relatively large expenses of bringing and supporting a lawsuit against an animal industry professional often do not justify the effort.

Proving Liability

By law, the one who makes an accusation of negligence or malpractice (that person is called the “plaintiff”) must specify and prove exactly how the professional made an error. In this case, that means Bill, the customer, must prove all of the following if he decides to file suit:

  • First, the farrier had a legally recognized duty to handle a professional matter in a certain way.
  • Second, the farrier somehow departed from, or “breached,” that duty. Over the years, it has become more important than ever for plaintiffs to prove this through the testimony of a knowledgeable expert witness. In this case, that would mean Bill needs to find another farrier who is willing to testify in a court of law exactly what you, the farrier, did wrong.  In addition, proving that your one-time shoeing job, even if faulty, rendered the horse permanently lame would require the plaintiff to secure the testimony of a qualified veterinarian as an expert witness. 

  • Third, a plaintiff must prove “proximate cause.” This essentially means that the one bringing the case against the professional must prove that the farrier’s malfeasance (wrongful conduct), and not some other reason, caused the horse’s demise or devaluation. That will be a tall order in this case because Bill’s horse already had lameness problems before the farrier worked on him.

  • Finally, a plaintiff must prove with reasonable certainty a sum of money or value that has been lost as a result of the malpractice (that sum is called “damages”). In animal-related cases, proving damages can sometimes be the biggest problem of all.

Since Bill’s claims involve the devaluation or loss of his horse, he will probably also need to hire an equine appraiser as another expert witness.

Keep in mind that if you must defend yourself against a lawsuit, you will need to attack each of these elements, often with expert witness testimony on your side. Not surprisingly, cases of professional negligence frequently turn into a “battle of the experts.” These cases can get very complicated and the expenses can be huge for everyone involved.

What Damages Can The Winning Plaintiff Collect?

Should Bill follow through with his threats to file a lawsuit against you, the damages he will seek as compensation for could include any of the following:

  1. If the horse has died, its fair market value around the time of death.
  2. If the horse is alive, the amount of money in which the horse has decreased in value.
  3. Lost profits such as stud fees or offspring.
  4. The likely value of lost race or show ring profits.
  5. Reimbursement of expenses from caring for the injured animal.
  6. The value of time that is spent in caring for the injured horse.
  7. Sometimes even the cost of procuring a substitute horse for the interests or purposes served by the horse who, the customer believes, was victimized by malpractice.

Other types of damages, which are very rarely awarded in cases involving animals, include money to compensate for the animal owner’s pain and suffering, punitive damages and attorney fees. It usually takes extreme wrongdoing for a court to even consider awarding the recovery of these types of damages. A knowledgeable lawyer can determine what damages a particular state will grant to winning parties in animal-related malpractice cases. 

The limited amount of damages that a winning plaintiff stands to recover and the high cost of hiring expert witnesses to substantiate the malpractice and the If a customer accuses you of negligence or malpractice in your shoeing damages are two of the biggest reasons why negligence lawsuits are so rarely pursued against equine industry professionals.

Suggestions For Responding To Lawsuits

If a customer accuses you of negligence or malpractice in your shoeingwork, consider doing the following:

  • Notify Your Insurer. Liability insurance policies exist that are designed to protect farriers against claims of negligence. If you already have this insurance in place, you would forward the lawsuit or the demand letter to your insurance company and cooperate with the company.
  • Consult With A Lawyer. Farriers who are not insured would be wise to contact a knowledgeable lawyer as soon as the demand or lawsuit comes in. Don’t assume that the matter will go away.
  • Gather Information. Most farriers keep few service records on each customer’s horse. However, any information you may have about the customer or the horse at issue (such as receipts for services performed, letters from the customer or his veterinarian) should be collected as soon as possible. You and your lawyer will likely need them later on.
  • Think Of Witnesses. Were people present when Bill brought his horse to you for special shoeing? Who was there when you did the shoeing job? Who is familiar with the condition of Bill’s horse, before and after you shod him? Think of who could serve as witnesses if your matter proceeds through the legal system.
  • Consider Experts. If the matter proceeds into a lawsuit, you and your lawyer will probably need to hire one or more expert witnesses in your defense. Because of the likelihood that your lawyer will know little about horses, you might want to develop a list of experienced and well-credentialed people whom you or your lawyer might contact to serve as expert witness for you.