PORTLAND — The state’s high court Wednesday heard arguments in a defamation claim brought by a Lisbon horse stable owner against a couple who sold her the animal.

Knotty, a roughly 20-year-old gelding, was put down in January 2014 after a protracted court battle that pitted his former owners, Jayne and Daniel Buck Soules, against Lisa Bosse, to whom they had sold the horse.

The Souleses of Lisbon had learned in 2013 that Bosse, who also lived in Lisbon, intended to end the animal’s life because of chronic medical conditions that had caused his eyes to cloud, swell and be sensitive to light, and his hindquarters to lack muscle tone, potentially preventing him from regaining his footing after a fall. Both conditions were not expected to improve. Bosse voiced her concern that the horse might be vulnerable after a fall during winter and could possibly freeze to death.

Although the Souleses had sold Knotty to Bosse, they sought in court to regain ownership so they could treat the horse for suspected Lyme disease.

Both the Souleses and Bosse told the judge they had the best interest of Knotty at heart.

Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy brokered a deal at a December 2013 court hearing whereby Knotty would remain at Bosse’s farm, but would be treated for Lyme disease and vitamin deficiency for as long as the Souleses continued to pay a veterinarian to carry out those treatments.

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But Knotty’s health continued to decline. He developed a new condition that required the removal of an eye. A veterinarian temporarily overseeing Knotty’s treatment had recommended that he be euthanized after concluding he wouldn’t be able to tolerate the anesthesia necessary for the surgery, Bosse’s attorney, David Van Dyke, had told Kennedy.

Kennedy’s injunction had prevented Bosse from taking steps to euthanize Knotty. But, in January, Kennedy revoked that injunction after a neutral veterinarian agreed to by both parties concluded that Knotty was at risk of a “catastrophic fall.”

After Knotty was euthanized, the Souleses moved for a summary judgment of their lawsuit.

In her order, Kennedy ruled against Bosse’s counterclaims of defamation and unjust enrichment.

Van Dyke pointed to a Sun Journal newspaper story in which, he argued, statements attributed to the Souleses damaged Bosse’s reputation in the community as a horse lover, a perception necessary for her business to remain successful.

Jayne Soules had sworn in an affidavit that she believed Bosse intended to kill or sell Knotty for horse meat, but Kennedy wrote in her order for summary judgment that neither party in the lawsuit had cited the newspaper article in their statements of material facts. She wrote that she could only rely on those statements in her ruling on the Souleses’ motion for summary judgment and, therefore, denied Bosse’s counterclaims.

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On Wednesday, Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices probed the arguments from both sides.

“Where are the simple declaratory sentences in the statement of material fact that identify the allegedly defamatory statements?” Associate Justice Jeffrey Hjelm asked. “So, you have not generated an issue at all that there were statements that could be defamatory.”

Van Dyke said his client referred to the Souleses’ allegedly defamatory statements from the newspaper story by refuting them, one by one, including: “Defendant did not intend to sell or kill Knotty for horse meat” and “It is also untrue that defendant’s horse farm was not a safe location for Knotty.”

Justices returned repeatedly to the point that the accusations made by the Souleses that appeared in a newspaper article did not appear in the statement of material fact in the lower court lawsuit.

Van Dyke said he believed Kennedy was right when she said the record created by the Souleses was so deficient that she couldn’t determine whether or not the statements were defamatory.

“Isn’t it incumbent upon you to raise a disputed issue of facts as to whether or not they did say something defamatory by stating what those defamatory statements are?” Associate Justice Joseph Jabar asked Van Dyke.

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“It’s your counterclaim,” Associate Justice Ellen Gorman told him. “And so you need to show, at least, prima facie evidence to support your claim. That’s the purpose of defending a motion for summary judgment.”

Rather than referring to the alleged defamatory remarks in the newspaper, Van Dyke said he instead responded to the Souleses’ assertions as reported in the Sun Journal story.

Van Dyke also argued that the Souleses benefited directly and Bosse bore the cost of Knotty’s continued care due to Kennedy’s court order, despite Bosse’s earlier intention to euthanize the horse because of his chronic medical conditions.

That, Van Dyke said, amounts to unjust enrichment.

Several justices noted that it was Kennedy’s injunctive order that, in fact, prolonged Knotty’s life, causing Bosse to foot the bill for extended care.

Sonia Buck, who represented the Souleses before the high court Wednesday, said Kennedy correctly ruled in summary judgment that Bosse couldn’t meet the burden in seeking to prove her counterclaims of defamation and unjust enrichment.

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The justices seemed more intent on examining the underlying case of the prolonged court dispute over Knotty’s fate that led to Wednesday’s appeal on the trials court’s order on the defendant’s counterclaims.

Gorman asked how the Souleses were entitled to any injunctive relief if they didn’t own Knotty at the time of the dispute.

Buck said the Souleses didn’t know what the status of their ownership was at the beginning, which might have prompted them to reach out to the press.

Buck said Knotty had first belonged to the Soules family and they had continued to visit him at Bosse’s farm after the change of ownership.

“If I start visiting your car (that I previously owned) and washed it, I could get some property rights in it?” Gorman asked.

“Your honor, I would have to say that depends on …” Buck said.

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“My relationship with your car . . . ?” Gorman finished Buck’s sentence.

“Yes,” Buck answered. “And our relationship, your honor.”

She said the Souleses only spoke to a reporter about Knotty after their relationship with Bosse had deteriorated and the two parties had reached a difference of opinion.

The high court took the matter under advisement for later ruling. 

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