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Seventh Circuit sides with insurer that saved ailing horse’s life

The Chicago-based appellate court found that an insurance company was right to bar a show horse’s owner from euthanizing the animal.

CHICAGO (CN) — A panel of Seventh Circuit appellate judges sided with an insurance company on Tuesday afternoon, affirming the life of a retired show horse in the process.

Horse owner Julie Greenback first brought the case at hand against Great American Assurance Company in 2018; she says she should have been allowed to euthanize her $500,000 show horse Thomas, aka Awesome At This, after he sustained career-ending injuries.

Great American, Thomas’ insurer, prevented her from doing so. Citing an element of the horse’s insurance policy that allows the company to take control of Thomas’ medical care, it instead brought him to two veterinarians in 2018 who helped treat his injuries, including chest abscesses and a right leg tear. Thomas is still alive thanks to those veterinarians’ work, but his days as a show horse are over.

While animal lovers may find the insurance company’s decision to keep Thomas alive commendable, that’s not how Greenback saw it. Her complaint, which appeared before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, characterizes Thomas’ extensive veterinary treatments as a cynical money grab, an attempt by Great American to avoid paying her the $500,000 it would have owed her had the horse been put down.

Her lawsuit also said that euthanizing Thomas, as his trainer Chuck Herbert and a third veterinarian named Raymond Stone initially suggested, would have been more humane.

“Despite those most knowledgeable of Thomas’ condition recommending his humane destruction, [Great American] exercised control over Thomas and his treatment and … began a course of radical, controversial and enduring medical treatment which subjected Thomas to excessive suffering so as to avoid payment of a covered loss under the policy,” the complaint stated.

Senior U.S. District Judge Sarah Barker disagreed. The Ronald Reagan appointee granted summary judgment to Great American in August 2021, opining that the insurance company acted reasonably under its equine mortality policy. It avoided unnecessarily killing a horse that, even if it could no longer perform in horse shows, could still live out its natural life.

“Because Great American followed the recommendations and guidance of two qualified veterinarians when rendering care to Thomas, we found Ms. Greenbank’s averment that this care was somehow unreasonable to be wholly unsupported by the factual record presented,” Barker wrote.

Barker also pointed out that Greenbank had suffered no material damages from Thomas’ survival, other than that she didn’t get any life insurance money. Unsatisfied with the ruling, the horse owner appealed to the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit in September. A panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, Amy St. Eve and Joel Flaum — appointed by Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, respectively — heard oral arguments on the case in March.

After several months of deliberation, the panel once again decided that Great American was in the right.

“There is no dispute that Thomas did not die naturally or by authorized humane destruction. That alone should end the inquiry into whether Great American breached a mortality insurance contract,” the panel wrote in its 17-page ruling.

Addressing Greenback’s argument that Great American “unreasonably” violated its insurance policy on Thomas by preventing her from putting the horse down, the panel stated that the “humane destruction” of an animal is only allowed under the policy in very specific circumstances. None of which, the ruling argues, were met by Thomas’ injuries.

“Thomas saw three veterinarians over a period of five months, and during that time, no veterinarian suggested that Thomas needed to be euthanized, let alone certified that fact to Great American,” the ruling states.

While the judges acknowledged that several veterinarians who examined Thomas said euthanasia may be “a possibility,” they maintained that euthanasia possibly being the best course of action is not the same as it being a contractual necessity.

“Nothing in the policy indicates that the mere possibility of euthanasia is enough to trigger Great American’s express consent. The policy does not even describe under what circumstances Great American should provide express consent,” the ruling states. “Greenbank appears to take the position that because Thomas lost his use as a show horse, Great American should have provided authorization for Thomas’ humane destruction. But we reject that proposition because nothing in the contract says that Great American was expected to protect Thomas’ use as a show horse.”

The judges similarly rejected Greenbank's claims that Great American acted in bad faith by keeping Thomas alive, by again pointing out that the company's responsibility was to insure the horse's life, not his athletic ability.

“Greenbank neither explains why Great American was required to consider Thomas’ athletic ability or her interests, nor does she point to a policy provision that mandates this. We are therefore hard pressed to understand how Great American acted in bad faith,” the ruling states.

Ultimately the panel affirmed the ruling by District Judge Barker that granted Great American summary judgment. Thomas’ decreased capacity as a show animal, it seems, did not justify his owner wanting him dead.

“We conclude that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment in Great American’s favor and affirm,” the panel decided.

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