A California family has filed a lawsuit challenging actions of a county fair association and law enforcement officers after an exhibitor tried to avoid selling her animal at a junior livestock show. [Read Second Amended Complaint here.]
Please note that all of the facts below were taken from the Second Amended Complaint for Damages. The Defendants have not yet filed a response.
E.L. (name protected as she is a minor child) owned a goat named Cedar. She purchased the goat in April 2022 and cared for him daily until July. She alleges that she bonded with goat just as she would have bonded with a puppy, and loved him like a family pet. E.L.’s mother, Jessica, had co-possessory interests in the goat. E.L. was a member of the local 4-H chapter. On June 24, 2022, E.L. exhibited the goat at the Shasta District Fair, which included a junior livestock auction where 4-H members exhibit and auction off their animals. The State Fair Rules, passed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture apply to all county fairs and state that the exhibitor must be the legal owner of the entry through show dates.
Prior to bidding beginning at the auction, E.L. and Jessica claim they sought to terminate their participation in the junior livestock auction portion of the fair. Fair officials refused to permit this, stating that fair rules prohibited Plaintiffs to terminate their participation in the auction. Plaintiffs claim there to be no such legally enforceable rules prohibiting this termination. The goat was auctioned off during the junior livestock sale and was purchased by State Senator Brian Dahle for $902. Of this, 7% ($63.14) was to be retained by the fair and the remaining $838.86 would be paid to E.L. The Plaintiffs noted that the successful bidder was not entitled to possession of, and did not purchase the goat. Rather, “the successful bidder was entitled only the cuts of meat that were Cedar.”
After the auction, E.L. did not want to leave the goat. The Plaintiffs’ alleged that E.L. “exercised her statutory rights as a minor under California law to disaffirm any contract that may have existed between her and the Shasta County Fair and/or any other party with respect to Cedar.” She relied upon Cal. Fam. Code Section 6710, which allows a minor to disaffirm a contract before majority or within a reasonable time afterwards. After doing this, Jessica removed the goat from the fair and informed the Shasta Fair Association that she was willing to pay any losses or damages associated with E.L.’s “decision to save Cedar.” After taking this step, Jessica feared there would be negative social consequences as they live in an agricultural community. Thus, two days later on June 26, 2022, Jessica took Cedar over 200 miles away to a third party’s farm, Sonoma Farms, in Sonoma County where he was kept while she dealt with any issues with the Shasta County Fair or her community. Plaintiffs claimed that doing so did not relinquish any of their possessory or ownership rights in the goat.
The Shasta County Fair Association refused to recognize E.L.’s rights to disaffirm the auction bid and insisted that Cedar be treated as any other animal going through the Shasta County Fair junior livestock auction. On June 26, 2022, the livestock manager for the Shasta Fair Association called Long and demanded the goat be returned. If this was not done, he threatened to have her charged with felony grand theft. Jessica claimed that she, again, offered to pay for any potential losses to the fair and to allow the fair to keep the full $902 auction payment for the goat. The livestock manager rejected her offer.
Jessica then reached out to the successful auction bidder, Senator Dahle, to ask him to relinquish any rights to Cedar. His representatives informed her that he would not resist her efforts with regard to the goat. She wrote a letter to the Fair laying out her position, Senator Dahle’s position, and offer to pay damages. This offer was rejected. On June 27, 2022, the fair CEO emailed Long, stating that Cedar had to be returned because, among other reasons, the social media response had been a negative experience for the fair.
Jessica then responded claiming that E.L. was Cedar’s owner and that the Shasta Fair Association was never the owner of Cedar, making their claim of grand theft baseless in both criminal and civil law. The Defendants did not respond.
At that point, the police got involved and Defendant Ashbee provided a Statement of Probable Cause in an application for a search warrant of a farm in Napa (“Napa Farm”). He claimed that Jessica committed grand theft by taking the goat and that Napa Farm posted on social media that the goat was in its custody. Plaintiffs claimed no such post was made, the goat was never at Napa Farm, and the court should have been informed there was a civil dispute regarding ownership of the goat. They claimed the Defendants and law enforcement were aware of this because of Jessica’s June 27 letter. The court issued the search warrant finding probable cause that the goat was stolen. Plaintiffs claimed the warrant instructed the Defendants to hold the goat in their possession if he was found until ownership was determined.
On July 8, 2022, Shasta County officers drove to Napa to seize the goat from the Napa Farm. But he was not, nor had he ever been, there. They then proceeded to Sonoma to Sonoma Farm, where they seized the goat. They did not have a warrant to search and seize Cedar at the Sonoma Farm. The goat was then delivered to the Shasta County fairgrounds. Plaintiffs allege this as an improper determination of ownership without judicial authorization and without providing Plaintiffs an opportunity to be heard. Plaintiffs believe that Cedar was turned over by the Shasta Fair Association and subsequently slaughtered despite the Shasta Fair Association knowing the civil nature of the dispute and the Plaintiffs’ claims of ownership rights in the goat.
Jessica, on behalf of herself and E.L. filed suit against a number of individuals including investigating police officers, the Shasta County Sheriff’s office, the Shasta District Fair and Event Center, Shasta County, the CEO and livestock manager of the Shasta County Fair, several police officers, and a representative of California 4-H. The lawsuit claimed that the Defendants violated the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, Article I, Sections 7 and 13 of the California Constitution, and committed conversion, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Plaintiffs claimed that the police officers and employees of Shasta District Association, violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by unreasonably searching for the goat when they possessed evidence showing no crime had been committed, and then seizing the goat without a warrant and disposing of the Plaintiffs’ property interest in the goat.
Plaintiffs claimed the police officers and employees of the Shasta District Association violated their right to due process by confiscating their property–the goat–and disposing of and destroying him without giving them notice or an opportunity to be heard. They also did not preserve the property or provide a means of reclaiming it, thereby stripping Plaintiffs of a reasonable opportunity to contest the deprivation.
California Constitution Article 1, Section 13
Plaintiffs claimed the Defendants violated their rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the California Constitution as well.
California Constitution Article 1, Section 7(a)
Plaintiffs claimed the Defendants violated their rights to due process under the California Constitution as well.
Plaintiffs claimed they had ownership and/or possessory rights in the goat, which the Defendants violated when they, without notice, took him and delivered him to third parties for slaughter.
Plaintiffs claimed that the Defendants owed the Plaintiffs a duty of care to abstain from injuring them or their property, which was breached by turning the goat over for slaughter despite notice of the Plaintiffs’ claim of ownership and despite the warrant requiring the goat be held until the claims were adjudicated.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Plaintiffs claimed that the Defendants knew of E.L.’s bond with the goat, knew of her minority, and knew of the disputed ownership claims, yet “knowingly and intentionally killed Cedar in contravention of Plaintiffs’ rights knowing it would emotionally damage E.L., particularly as a minor. Plaintiffs alleged that E.L. did suffer severe emotional distress.
Plaintiffs sought a declaration that E.L. may disaffirm any contract or obligation to participate in a livestock auction if she enters the Shasta Fair Association and may disavow any obligation to sell livestock she owns through an auction.
Finally, Plaintiffs claimed that they were punished for their viewpoint that “Cedar was more than just cuts of meat and deserved to live,” which were expressed on social media and drew poor light to the fair. They claim that because of this, the Defendants bypassed applicable and orderly processes of filing a civil action and determining ownership and, instead, had him killed. Plaintiffs claimed had they expressed a different viewpoint, the Fair Association would not have had the goat killed with no legal notice of procedure. Thus, the killing of the goat, they claim, was retaliation for their viewpoint that differed from the Defendants’.
One key question in this case is whether E.L. can disavow her contractual agreement because she is a minor. This is a common law in many states and is why, for example, often parents will sign on behalf of a minor child. This comes up frequently in the context of liability waivers if minor children will be entering property.
However, minor children frequently sign forms and contracts related to junior livestock shows. This is a very real question that could arise for shows across the country. Many shows we have been a part of have also required parents to sign the same documents, although that does not appear to have been the case in this situation. Are these contracts valid, or can they be disavowed? This will likely be an important issue in this case.
Another point here is that how rules are written in the premium book or other contractual documents of a livestock show are extremely important. Here, a key question may be whether there was a written rule requiring E.L. to participate in the junior livestock sale as part of participating in the county fair. Defendants said there was a rule in place, but Plaintiffs claim there was not. Another rule that may prove important in this case is the language in the California State Fair rules that the exhibitor is the owner of the animal through the end of the shows.
This lawsuit is just beginning, so there will be more to come. Likely, the Defendants will respond to the lawsuit with either an Answer or a Motion to Dismiss. We will keep up with the pleadings and keep you informed on how this case progresses.