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We’ve all heard of “lemon laws” – laws that protect consumers from purchasing unsafe or defective cars from unscrupulous sellers. But what happens if you buy a horse that turns out to be a “lemon?”
If you purchase a horse that doesn’t live up to the promises of the seller, paper is your only saving grace in most states. Florida is the only state that currently has a lemon law in place for horse sales.
Fortunately, you do have some options if your dream horse is a dud.
Lemon laws are usually used in the context of used vehicles, arising from the slang term “lemon” for a defective car. These state and federal laws protect consumers who have purchased defective or unsafe vehicles, entitling them to a replacement or refund.
The idea of a “lemon” has evolved beyond cars, however. Most states have enacted pet lemon laws to help pet purchasers get a refund or exchange if the pet they purchase becomes sick or dies. In some cases, owners may receive reimbursement for veterinary costs or the purchase price of the animal.
Unfortunately, pet lemon laws are typically limited to breeders and sellers of companion animals – puppies, in particular. Horses are generally considered livestock and not pets, so these laws don’t include them.
A “lemon” can mean different things to different horse owners. In many cases, it refers to an unsound horse that has been misrepresented by the seller, though it could also refer to behavioral issues that make it dangerous or unsuitable for your chosen discipline.
Caveat emptor is a contract law principle that relies on the principle that the buyer is responsible for the quality and suitability of a purchase. For years, this principle ruled the world of horse sales, giving dishonest horse sellers all the power.
That is changing, however. In the Florida Supreme Court case Besett v. Basnett, the court stated that a “person guilty of fraudulent misrepresentation should not be permitted to hide behind the doctrine of caveat emptor.”
In 2008, Florida passed the Equine Lemon Law, which puts the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in charge of evaluating the conditions of the sale and purchase of horses to prevent unfair and deceptive practices.
Under this law, there must be a written bill of sale for the buyer that includes the name, address, and signatures of the purchaser and owner (or authorized agents), the name of the horse, its sire and dam, its breed registry status, and age. It also includes the purchase price and a statement from the seller attesting to legal ownership and the right to sell.
But what if you bought a lemon in another state besides Florida?
Even if you don’t have the protection of Florida’s Equine Lemon Law, there are other laws that may apply to equine lemon cases.
Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.) is a law that exists in all 50 states that may come up in a lemon case. Under Article 2, buyers and sellers have certain rights and protections when they enter into contracts for the “sale of goods.”
In the eyes of most courts, horses are considered “goods.” So, if you enter into a sales contract with an unscrupulous horse seller, the U.C.C. can offer some legal recourse.
There are some stipulations for U.C.C. enforcement, however:
In some circumstances, the U.C.C. may enforce an oral contract if one party has performed their side of the deal without objection from the other party.
Most horse lemon cases that fall under the U.C.C. pertain to a horse’s fitness for a particular purpose. The seller is aware of what the buyer is looking to use the horse for and is relying on the seller’s judgment to supply a horse that’s suitable for that purpose. This creates an implied warranty that the horse is, in fact, suitable.
The key here is that the buyer is relying on the seller’s judgment. If, for example, the horse is clearly unsound, then the buyer is equally responsible for the knowledge of the defect. A buyer may also have a tenuous case if they may be considered equally or more knowledgeable than the seller as to the horse’s suitability for a specific purpose.
In addition, if a buyer refuses to have a pre-purchase veterinary exam, it may be considered a waiver of the implied warranty of fitness for a specific purpose. The vet exam should always take place before money changes hands.
All stats have Consumer Protection Acts (CPAs) that offer some recourse against dishonest hose sellers. CPAs differ from the U.C.C., which seeks to regulate contractual relationships, as it looks more toward unfair or deceptive trade practices – particularly against inexperienced buyers.
CPA claims may be one of two types:
CPAs also prohibit unfair practices that are likely to be repeated, such as withholding information, using unethical contracts, or taking advantage of a buyer’s inexperience. In this case, a seller could still face legal ramifications even if the buyer refused a pre-purchase exam.
In the horse world, a lot of deals are made with a handshake. But when you’re dealing with thousands of dollars (or more), it’s important to take steps to protect your investment.
Though there are some legal options if you have a lemon horse, caveat emptor is still a dominant principle. Your due diligence goes a long way in avoiding a dispute in the future.
Before you begin shopping for horses, make a list of what’s important to you – soundness, temperament, conformation, vices, sex, age, and fitness. When you’re looking at a particular horse, ask the seller about these points. They’re not necessarily going to volunteer information that could harm the sale.
Think of it this way. If you don’t ask about these things specifically, the seller hasn’t represented the horse either way. Don’t make any assumptions – ask the questions and get a clear answer.
A written sales contract is the best thing you can do to protect yourself with a possible lemon horse. The contract becomes a record of what the seller said about the horse, including any potential vices, suitability, and soundness, and can prevent disputes related to the sale.
If you don’t have claims in writing, it’s harder to prove that the seller did or did not disclose important details about the horse. If it’s written down, it’s black and white. There may also be times that you have to prove that you purchased the horse and what you paid, which is difficult to do without a contract.
Each sales contract will differ, but keep in mind that anything that factors into your decision to purchase the horse should be in the contract.
Generally, contracts should have:
This contract should be in writing, legible, and signed and dated by each party. With high-priced horses, it’s crucial to have a lawyer look over the sales contract, but it’s a good idea with any horse purchase.
If you don’t have a sales contract, not all hope is lost. Entering into a sales agreement is a contract, even if it’s verbal, but it’s harder to prove the terms if you don’t have them written and signed in a legal document.
Basically, it becomes a “he said, she said” between the buyer and seller. The buyer can say the seller claimed the horse was bombproof, but the seller can claim they’ve made no such guarantee. A judge is tasked with finding the truth, which can lead to a lot of time, money, and effort spent to clear up a dispute.
In some cases, other evidence can be used to support the buyer or seller’s claims, such as witness testimony, veterinary records, photos, videos, or electronic communication like text, email, or social media messages. A paper trail, whether actual paper or electronic, can support your case without a written contract.
Buying a horse is a big investment, both in financial terms and the emotional investment you make in a living animal. Yet, despite the potential heartache and thousands (or even millions) of dollars at stake, too many horse owners rely on handshakes and verbal promises.
If your dream horse turns out to be a lemon, your best resolution is a written contract. Don’t let money change hands without it!
Still have questions? Here are answers to the common questions about horse sales and disputes.
We may treasure our horses as companions, teammates, and assets, but in the eyes of the law, they’re considered “goods” in every state.
Though some states have a puppy or pet lemon law to protect buyers from unscrupulous breeders or sellers, horses are not considered a “pet” and aren’t protected by these laws.
There is no lemon law for horses, other than the Florida Equine Lemon Law. If you have a dispute in another state, you must rely on the other legal protections governing sales of goods, such as U.C.C. and CPA.
It depends on the terms of the contract. Some horse sellers have options to exchange the horse without a refund or that they will sell the horse on the buyer’s behalf if it’s not suitable. While these are options in some cases, you may still have a legal right to a refund if the horse is unfit or misrepresented during the sale.
Equine contracts may include a “right of first refusal” clause that restricts how a horse can be resold if the buyer no longer wants to keep it. This clause states the buyer must give the seller an opportunity to buy the horse back in the future, but with specified conditions.
Generally, yes, but the strength of your case depends on the facts and what’s stated in your contract (or lack thereof).
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