Yard and horse owners are being encouraged to have written agreements in place to cover the authorisation of emergency veterinary treatment after an owner took action against her vet when her colicking horse was put down in her absence
The 2019 legal battle was brought after the horse was put down, rather than undergoing colic surgery, when its owner was not present.
While the vet told the yard owner surgery was an option, she did not advise on the horse’s chance of returning to competition. The yard owner did not pass on the fact surgery was an option to the horse owner, who said she would have opted for surgery had she been given more information on the prognosis.
The owner took legal action against the vet practice, claiming negligence for failing to advise the horse had a 50/50 prospect of returning to competition after surgery. The judge found as the yard owner did not pass on any information about surgery to the horse owner, she would not have passed on the prognosis, even if this had been given by the vet. Therefore, the case was dismissed.
Hannah Bradley of the Equine Law Firm told H&H the case was significant because it could have been brought against the yard owner for not passing on the information. She recommends yard and horse owners have an agreement in place on what decisions should be taken in the horse owner’s absence in an emergency.
“Having a contract is important; for yard owners’ protection and horse owners’ peace of mind. People have different expectations based on sentimental attachment, value of the horse and financial affairs,” she said.
“Everyone has to be clear because disputes happen when people make decisions they’re not authorised to.”
Ms Bradley said yards should have terms setting out emergency situations. She added that agreements can be made in an exchange of written communication such as email, whereby both parties agree.
“Society is becoming more litigious; people want to protect themselves and that is the correct thing to do — particularly from a yard owner’s perspective,” she said.
“For horse owners, it gives certainty because they don’t want a situation where they’re incurring vet bills they wouldn’t have authorised, or where a horse is euthanised when they wouldn’t have chosen this.”
British Horse Society (BHS) head of approvals Oonagh Meyer told H&H in the owner’s absence that deciding whether a horse should be referred to a veterinary hospital or for surgery is “almost impossible” if guidelines are not in place.
“Contracts should outline a plan to be followed in emergencies — for example, written details of a go-to contact the horse owner authorises to make decisions should they not be contactable,” she said.
“Communication should include clarity on permission to discuss and attend to the horse with the veterinary practice with which the horse or yard is registered. Many vets request clients notify them in advance of any such permissions.”
A spokesman for the Equestrian Employers Association told H&H written policies are “vital” for businesses with equines in their care.
“This should cover day-to-day care, responsibilities when contacting the vet and owners’ wishes in the event of emergency. It is better to have the conversation before an emergency than during a time-sensitive and stressful situation when emotions are running high.”
Things to consider
Ms Bradley recommends owners consider the following points:
- What efforts should be made to contact you if an issue arises in relation to the welfare of your horse?
- If you cannot be contacted, can a vet be called without your authority?
- Do you wish to put a cap on how much can be incurred on vet’s bills in your absence? Make this decision considering the level of your insurance cover and any exclusions on the policy. If necessary, agree a separate cap for fees that are potentially not covered by your insurance policy.
- Do you wish to define how certain important or urgent veterinary decisions should be made if you can’t be reached? It will be difficult to define your wishes for every possible scenario. You could, for example, agree the yard owner may authorise veterinary treatment to relieve the horse from pain or to prevent the deterioration of any condition.
- Do you wish to agree in what circumstances the yard owner may sanction the euthanasia of the horse? As you will unlikely be able to define all the possible scenarios where euthanasia may be a possibility, it may be sensible to agree that euthanasia may be sanctioned if it is advised by the attending veterinary surgeon.
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