What can happen if you are an Independent Contractor and a horse you are working with has an accident?
The hamster in my brain has been working overtime lately! Many of us have heard about the tragic case of a show pony that collapsed and died while at a show on the East Coast. This made national news and even appeared in the New York Times. We can all agree that the pony’s death is tragic.
This also prompted me to think about who is liable for such an event, and even more simply, what a Groom could be faced with if an accident happened with a horse he was handling. I have asked our friend Jenn McCabe to help us with a series of "WHAT IF" articles to highlight some ways that Grooms can protect themselves while working. Jenn is an equine law attorney, former Pony Clubber, and Event rider.
I posed a hypothetical to Jenn to get the ball rolling: Let’s say that you are a Groom, who is being paid as an independent contractor. You are working with a horse, and he breaks free of your control and hurts himself, requiring Veterinary care.
-Who is responsible for the Veterinary bills? Could you, the Groom, be responsible for his loss of use, boarding, rehab and follow up Veterinary care because you are being paid as an independent contractor?
Liability is an extremely broad and confusing legal concept. Simply put, a person is legally liable when they are financially and legally responsible for something… Not so simple, is it? The concept is particularly tricky in the horse industry because there are so many factors that can contribute to whether a certain person is liable for a given incident - WHO is liable; WHEN are they liable; TO WHOM are they liable; WHAT can they be liable for; etc.
For instance, the case we’re talking about here involves a groom working as an independent contractor, as opposed to working as an employee. Being an independent contractor as a groom means that YOU are personally liable for the work that you do (or don’t do, but should have). On the other hand, working as another person’s employee will generally limit your personal liability, and instead your employer will be liable for the work that you do. In other words, as an independent contractor YOU could ultimately be held financially responsible for incidents that occur while you are working (including veterinary bills, rehabilitation expenses, etc).
But don’t panic just yet - Horses are unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and literally have minds of their own. Accordingly, for an independent contractor to be held liable for negligence, he must have acted unreasonably by doing something (or not doing something that he should have done) to cause the incident. Grooms can avoid being liable for negligence simply by acting reasonably under the circumstances; “reasonable care” doesn’t require a super-human effort, but mere common sense in most situations. In the case of the horse getting loose under the independent contractor’s care, I think we can agree that horses do silly things that grooms cannot always predict… So long as the groom exercises “reasonable care” given the circumstances presented by the horse’s behavior, chances are that he will not be held liable for negligence. However, the opposite also holds true – if a groom does not exercise the sort of care that a reasonable person would and should, he exposes himself to personal liability.
-Reputable trainers carry insurance that can protect them from such situations. If you are being paid as an independent contractor, do you need to have insurance? After all, an independent contractor is the boss of their own company, even if it’s a sole proprietorship.
Yes, without question. Accidents happen every day… and while most are relatively harmless, the big ones could leave you and whatever is left of your business in serious debt.
As an independent contractor you are considered a business-entity of your own, and people can and will sue you. Grooms working as independent contractors should insure their businesses just like any other business in the horse industry is insured. Having the right insurance coverage will not only protect you from thousands of dollars of losses in the event that you lose a lawsuit, it will also finance your legal defense in the event that you are sued. The average negligence lawsuit defense runs well into tens of thousands of dollars in a case that goes to trial, so the minimal cost of insurance in comparison is a wise investment.
Hhhhmmm.... lots to think about! Jenn and I will continue this "What If" series to cover what you need to know about working as a contractor when you technically are an employee!
Here's more about Jenn: Jenn McCabe is an equine law attorney whose office provides business consulting and litigation services for the horse industry throughout California. Her office also provides consulting services to out-of-state equine attorneys and other California law firms. Please visit her website at www.CaliforniaHorseLawyer.com for more information.
You can also find Jenn on Facebook here, and if you like to tweet, Jenn is on Twitter here!
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are opinion only and based on the experience of the article's author and not to be construed as legal advice in any respect. Consult an attorney before taking action based on the contents of this article. Jenn McCabe, Liv Gude, and Professional Equine Grooms, LLC. expressly disclaim all liability in respect of any actions taken or not taken based on any contents of this article.