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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Insurers Can’t Sue Horse Trainer After Freak Fire

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A horse trainer will not have to reimburse two insurance companies for benefits paid to the owners of six horses that died in a horrific highway fire, a federal judge ruled.

Donald Lee Deardoff has owned and operated a stable in Molalla, Ore., with his family for nearly 40 years. Though he primarily offers boarding services, he sometimes transports horses for certain clients and other trainers.

In 2008, Deardoff agreed to transport six of his clients' horses from Molalla to the Santa Barbara National Horse Show. In transporting and caring for the horses during the competition, Deardoff brought along his daughter, Allison, who has won awards in equestrian world championships and has eight years of training experience.

As they drove back to Molalla from Santa Barbara in the early morning hours of July 6, 2008, however, a fire broke out in the trailer. The Deardoffs were driving along I-5 at around 4:30 a.m. when other drivers began signaling that there was a problem with the trailer.

Unsure what the problem was and concerned with pulling over on the highway's narrow shoulder in the dark, however, they kept driving toward a nearby truck stop.

After pulling off the highway, Deardoff said he could see visible flames on the trailer, growing stronger with every minute. He could have parked near the exit ramp, but wanted to drive the extra 2 miles to the truck stop because he thought he and his daughter may need help - and water - to extinguish the fire and save the horses, which were "high-strung" to begin with.

"The Deardorffs were unsuccessful in their attempts to save the horses, and all six horses died in the trailer fire on July 6, 2008, at approximately 5 a.m. near the intersection of I-5 and SR-152," according to the ruling. "It appears that most of the horses had died of smoke inhalation prior to the Deardorffs opening the trailer doors at the Petro station.

"Deardorff sustained second degree burns on his face, arms, and hands as a result of going into the trailer to try and save the horses."

Diamond State Insurance and Great American Insurance paid the six horse owners a total of $226,000 for their losses, and they filed suit against Deardoff for reimbursement on Dec. 31, 2009.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii dismissed the entire suit on April 14, finding that negligence claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations, and any remaining claims could not survive without the underlying finding of negligence.

"In his reply memorandum, Deardorff argues that the evidence does not establish gross negligence," the 45-page decision states. "There was not a safe place to release the horses, and no witness testified that this was a legitimate option. Although Deardorff intended to stop once he exited off of I-5 and onto SR-152, the fire increased dramatically and he needed help to deal with the situation. As for extinguishing the fire, there was only one bucket of water in the trailer.

"Deardorff and Allison have over 50 years of experience with horses between them, and Deardorff had experience hauling horses," Ishii continues. "The evidence is uncontradicted that they believed: (1) the fire was beyond them, (2) they needed to get to a place where there was additional help and water, (3) it was not safe or advisable to unload the horses at that point, and (4) they needed help in unloading the horses. There is no evidence to contradict this assessment. In fact, the testimony of Leslie Pierce [one of the horse owners] regarding the high strung nature of these horses supports the assessment that help to unload the six show horses was necessary. While there were various options available to Deardorff in dealing with the afire trailer, he chose the option of attempting to get to a place where he could obtain help, including a place that had water. Again, while the evidence at best might suggest negligence, it does not show gross negligence. No reasonable jury could find that Deardorff's decision to drive for help instead of either unloading the horses or using the single bucket of water to try and extinguish the flames shows 'the want of scant care or an extreme departure from the standard of care.'"

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