Horse Fraud Trial: Winning the Selleck Case

Trial lawyer George Knopfler faced a number of unique challenges beyond simply proving the facts of his case when he represented actor Tom Selleck and his family in a lawsuit alleging fraud in the sale of a show horse. He had to educate a jury with little experience in the horse business about the ins and outs of the show horse world; he had to make a dispute about the purchase of a six-figure animal relevant to working men and women who were suffering through one of the worst economic recessions in California history; and he had to focus the jury's attention on the allegations of fraud rather than on the celebrity status of his clients.

Knopfler was up to the task. The jury awarded the Sellecks $187,000 in compensatory damages—$120,000 as the purchase price for 10-year-old Zorro and another $67,000 for board and veterinary bills—and the parties later settled for an additional $75,000 in punitive damages.

One of the most difficult aspects of the case, Knopfler said, was trying to explain how there can be fraud in a sale when the parties to the lawsuit (the buyer, Selleck, and the seller, Del Mar businesswoman and equestrienne Dolores Cuenca) never talked to each other directly about the transaction. Instead, the parties' trainers negotiated the sale of Zorro. The use of trainers as agents for buying and selling horses is common, but difficult to explain to a jury with little insider knowledge.

The jury that actually decided the case was selected from a list of 55 prospective jurors, fewer than a dozen of whom had any experience in the horse business. None of the experienced individuals made the final cut. Knopfler said that he would have liked a few jurors who were familiar with the horse industry, but that experts on the jury could have been problematic. While that might sound counterintuitive, a jury without preconceived ideas and prejudices often can be the easiest to persuade.

"If we had known that the horse had been injected just a week before the veterinary exam, we would have postponed the examination for at least 30 days." --George Knopfler

"It was a two-week trial," Knopfler explained, "and we spent between 15% and 20% of the time helping the jurors understand the horse business. To win, we had to make the jury understand that it is common for horse sales to be negotiated completely through agents, and that fraud can be based on those conversations between the agents.

"From the very beginning of the trial we advanced the notion that using agents is the ‘custom and practice' of the horse industry, and that this way of doing business is unique."

Arguing about "customs and practices" could have been a double-edged sword. One of the defense arguments was that routine steroid injections were a necessary part of the game for horses competing at high levels, and that Zorro's history of such treatments were standard practice rather that an effort to mask a serious medical condition.

"We didn't argue that the general practice of injecting show horses with steroids was unknown to the Sellecks," Knopfler said. "And we didn't take a stand on whether the practice was good or bad."

The problem, Knopfler explained, was the timing of the injections and the seller's failure to disclose that the injections had occurred.

"If we had known that the horse had been injected just a week before the veterinary exam, we would have postponed the examination for at least 30 days," Knopfler said.

Zorro's lameness became obvious a few weeks after the Sellecks took possession of the horse. The problem was serious enough to make the horse unsuitable as a mount the Sellecks' daughter, Hannah. A return to competition for Zorro is "pretty much out of the question," according to Knopfler, who said that the Sellecks still have the horse.

A significant amount of the compensatory damages award, $67,000 for board and vet bills, might have raised some eyebrows, but Knopfler said that the Sellecks were not trying to pad the bill.

"The Sellecks kept the horse in a very high-end barn for quite a while after buying him," the attorney explained. "They didn't want to be accused of not giving the horse the very best care available. They spent a lot of money on vet care while they were trying to get him sound."

In California and many other jurisdictions, fraud trials have separate phases for compensatory and punitive damages. The former ($187,000 in the Selleck case) are awarded to compensate a plaintiff for economic damages actually suffered; the latter are awarded to punish a defendant for wrongdoing. A plaintiff must show a seller's intent to deceive the buyer as an element of fraud and as a prerequisite for punitive damages.

During the break between the jury award of compensatory damages and the start of the second phase of the trial, the parties reached a settlement for an additional $75,000 in punitive damages.

A veteran trial attorney, Knopfler has had more than 100 trials, including some 70 tried to a jury, and he often gets referrals from other attorneys who do not relish the pressure of a courtroom. Although Knopfler is familiar with the horse business through his wife's work as a dressage trainer, the attorney does not specialize in equine law. That didn't seem to matter.

"This wasn't an equine law case," Knopfler said. "This was a fraud case." 

See other information about this case on in "Tom Selleck's Court Battle Over Lame Horse" and the Horses and the Law blog by Milton C. Toby, JD, entitled "Due Diligence." 

About the Author

Milt Toby, JD

Milt Toby is an author and attorney who has been writing about horses and legal issues affecting the equine industry for more than 40 years. Former Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association's Equine Law Section, Milt has written eight nonfiction books, including national award winners Dancer’s Image and Noor. He teaches Equine Commercial Law in the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program.

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