Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sabey v. Beardsley

Dressage is sometimes referred to as horse ballet. It does appear to me that the horses are dancing. Here is a video of from the London 2012 Olympic Grand Prix Dressage I found on You Tube. It involves a high level of horse training, and a high level of skill by the dressage rider and trainer.

Jesse Sabey became interested in dressage riding at a young age. He began riding at 12. He met Kim and Dietrich von Hopffgarten, prominent dressage riders and trainers, a couple of years later after seeing them at a horse show. He lived in Washington State, and they lived across the border in British Columbia. He asked them to give him dressage riding lessons, and they did. After he graduated from high school, the von Hopffgartens assisted in arranging for him to get a student position in a dressage facility in Germany.

In 2001, Mr. Sabey moved to the von Hopffgartens’ horse farm, Sansoucci, in Langley, B.C. He worked for them, while taking riding lessons, but also commuting to Washington State to study accounting, eventually becoming a Certified Public Accountant. He had told the von Hopffgartens that he wanted to become a professional dressage rider, but Mr. von Hopffgarten encouraged him in his studies to become an accountant. He moved to Washington State in 2005, but continued to return to work on the farm, usually on Saturdays. They had become very close over the years.

Although the von Hopffgartens paid Mr. Sabey while he was a working student on the farm, they often paid him less than the other working students they employed. Mr. von Hopffgarten told him on three occasions that the farm would someday be Mr. Sabey’s. Mrs. von Hopffgarten was present on at least one of those occasions. He made further comments that were less explicit, but implied that Mr. Sabey would one day get the farm.

Mr. von Hopffgarten died in 2006, and the farm became Mrs. von Hopffgarten’s as the surviving joint tenant. She told Mr. Sabey that it had been their plan that if anything happened to Dietrich von Hopffgarten, the farm would be Mr. Sabey’s. She asked him to come back and take it then, but because of his job and concern about immigration issues, he continued to live and work in Washington State, returning to the farm on weekends.

Mrs. von Hopffgarten died in May 2011.

Both Dietrich and Kim von Hopffgarten made codicils to their wills leaving Mr. Sabey the farm. Unfortunately, they made the codicils on their own, and each only had one witness to the codicil. In British Columbia, a will or codicil must be witnessed by two witnesses to be valid.

When the new Wills Estates and Succession Act comes into force on March 31, 2014, the Supreme Court of British Columbia will have the power under section 58 to give effect to a document that does not comply with the formal requirements of a will if the Court is satisfied that the document represents the maker’s testamentary intentions (as I discussed here). But this provision, not being in effect, is of no benefit to Mr. Sabey.

Although he could not give effect to the codicils, Mr. Justice Myers in Sabey v. Beardsley, 2013 BCSC 642, awarded Jesse Sabey the farm.

Mr. Sabey’s lawyers, Amy Francis and Andrea Frisby, argued on his behalf that Mr. Sabey was entitled to the farm on the basis of the legal doctrine of proprietary estoppel and Mr. Justice Myers agreed.

In his reasons for judgment, at paragraph 43, Mr. Justice Myers set out the requirements for a promissory estoppel as follows:

Therefore the courts have normally looked to three main elements as a foundation for a proprietary estoppel claim:  a representation made to the claimant; reasonable reliance on the representation; and a detriment to the claimant flowing from the reliance.

He found that Mr. Sabey’s evidence of what Mr. and Mrs. von Hopffgarten told him was credible, consistent with the relationship, and his credibility had not been challenged at trial. The assurances they gave him that the farm would be his were sufficiently clear to convey to him that he would someday receive the farm.

Mr. Justice Myers found that Jesse Sabey relied on the von Hopffgarten’s statements to him to his detriment in choosing a career as an accountant instead of pursing a career as a professional dressage rider. With respect to the argument advanced on behalf of the beneficiary of the farm under Mrs. von Hopffgarten’s will that Mr. Sabey did not suffer financially from his decision to become an accountant, Mr. Justice Myers wrote at paragraph 63:

A financial loss is certainly one type of detriment, but I do not think it is the only type or a necessary element of detriment.  Jesse gave up something he wanted, to become a professional dressage rider.  Whether he would have made more or less money doing that is beside the point.  Further, Jesse oriented his accounting career so that he would not have to travel and so he could work as close as possible (within the United States) to the farm.  I do not think it is incumbent on him to prove a resulting financial loss.  As stated above, reliance and detriment are often one and the same.

In the result, Mr. Sabey is entitled to the farm, Sansoucci.

[This decision was appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which overturned the decision. See my later post on the Court of Appeal decision here.]

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