“I am afraid I don’t have any snacks for you,” R.L. Adams said softly to the German Warmblood that had just nudged him with a wet nose. The Raleigh attorney then scratched the horse’s head and continued talking business with Hidden Hill Farm owner, Alisa Shackelford.
Over the last 10 years, Adams has advised Shackelford on a surprisingly wide range of legal matters. From sales and boarding contracts to employment policies to UCC litigation, the owner of the 100-acre horse farm north of Durham that specializes in young hunter and jumper prospects has regularly drawn on Adams’ equine law expertise.
“In order to be a good equine lawyer, you have to have some basic horsemanship skills in addition to knowledge of the animals and of the industry,” said Shackelford. “You can’t be a horse dummy.”
Adams took up trail riding in 1993, 10 years after he started practicing law. “As a new trail rider exploring trails around Falls Lake, I’d get questions about equine law that I couldn’t answer,” said Adams. These questions peaked his interest. Adams attended a CLE on equine law at the University of Kentucky, the first of many.
At the time, he was a partner with Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, a large, statewide firm. His practice focused on product liability defense in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries and included cases that involved artificial heart valves and silicone implants. “I came to the realization that equine law was indeed a practice area; however, it was not a good fit for a big firm.”
In 1999, when Adams started his own firm, he devoted half of his practice to commercial litigation and personal injury and launched Carolina Equine Law. Over the last 16 years, Adams has advised equine clients throughout North Carolina, and from 30 other states and Canada. He’s a featured columnist in Carolina Hoofbeats, a magazine for Carolina horse enthusiasts and equine professionals.
“When a recreational horse enthusiast decides to become an equine professional, I consult with them on risk management. I help them select the appropriate business entity, address insurance issues, identify contract requirements, and help them with buying, selling or leasing a farm.”
TWO BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY
There are over 300,000 horses, ponies, donkeys, mules and burros in North Carolina according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. The state’s equine industry creates almost 20,000 jobs and has an annual economic impact of almost $2 billion. So it’s no surprise that disputes come up for the state’s 53,000 horse owners.
“It’s a hand-shake industry; often there is no written contract,” said Adams. “Newcomers to the industry buy horses, invest in riding lessons for their kids, and pay for horse shows. Many times the misunderstandings are legitimate. Unfortunately, people without industry knowledge may get flat-out taken.”
Under North Carolina law horses are personal property; under the Uniform Commercial Code horses are goods. “In the case of damages to horses, the ordinary measure of damages applies,” Adams said. “If a horse is killed or injured, we start with the fair market value of the horse immediately prior to the incident. Many owners view their horses as family and believe them to be worth far more.”
ANYONE CAN RIDE THIS HORSE
The sale and purchase of horses via the Internet has generated a tremendous volume of litigation. “As in many online advertisements, sellers of equines make representations that may or may not be true. Statements like ‘this horse loves to go to horse shows’ or ‘anyone can ride this horse anywhere’ are examples,” said Adams.
“Often, someone buys a horse and develops an emotional bond with the animal. If an undisclosed injury or a behavioral problem arises, the owner must decide if he wants to keep the horse or not. Does he want to rescind the contract and return the horse or keep horse and sue for monetary damages?” he explained.
“The tough part as an attorney is to educate a client about the law. No matter how attached a client is to a horse, the loss of that personal relationship is not compensable. I have to explain what the litigation may cost versus what the lawsuit might yield,” said Adams. “Often, I’m the bearer of bad news in that regard.”
“North Carolina’s horse industry is very family oriented. I would like for people to be able to enjoy their horses, be a part of the horse industry and minimize their legal risk,” Adams continued. “I think horse owners trust me because I understand their world and their concerns. I also know there are certain ways that business is done in the equine industry.”
As we left Hidden Hill Farm, Adams hopped out of his Ford Mustang to close the gate. He lingered another moment to gaze back at the farm. “I get out here every chance I can,” said Adams. “This is the best part of being an equine lawyer.”