Jury awards $2.5 million in damages in 2009 polo horse deaths

Seven years after 21 polo ponies collapsed and died before a match in Wellington, a Palm Beach County jury has awarded $2.5 million in damages to a wealthy Venezuelan and three polo players who owned the prized horses and an insurance company that partially covered the losses.

The question now is: Will anyone ever recover any money?

In clearing Wellington veterinarian Dr. James Belden of any wrongdoing, the jury last week put the majority of the blame on Franck’s Pharmacy, finding that it improperly mixed a nutritional supplement that had been ordered for the horses, turning it toxic.

The Ocala pharmacy went out of business in 2012, raising quesitons about how it could be forced to pay any damages to Victor Vargas, a Venezuelan banker, entreprenuer and polo enthusiast who owned 12 of the horses, or three polo players, who owned the other nine.

“There’s an issue of collectibility,” said attorney Daniel Bachi, who represented Belden in the two-week trial. “Whether they’ll ever be able to collect is uncertain.”

The jury ordered Franck’s, once one of the biggest compounding pharmacies in the nation, to pay $1.75 million to Vargas, Diamond State Insurance Co. and polo players Juan Martin Nero, Guillermo Caset and Nicolas Espain. The three athletes were playing on the wealthy businessman’s famed Lechuza Caracas team at the International Polo Club Palm Beach when the horses died in April 2009.

Two pharmacists who worked at Franck’s - Anthony Campbell and Nefertiti Abdullah - were ordered to pay $375,000 each in damages. However, Bachi said, Abdullah wasn’t a party to the lawsuit so he can’t be forced to cough up any money. That means Campbell is the only one of the hook.

Neither Campbell’s attorney or those representing Vargas, the polo players or the insurer returned phone calls for comment. They were seeking $4 million to replace the horses.

Belden said he has no idea why he was dragged into the litigation. Days after the horses collapsed, pharmacy officials admitted they had put too much selenium in the supplement it prepared for the horses. Considered an essential nutrient, it is also fatal in large doses.

“The lab admitted it from the get-go,” Belden said. “There was never any question what caused it.”

During the trial, evidence showed that the lab put 100 times more selenium in what was supposed to have been a generic version of Biodyl for the horses. Instead of adding one-tenth of 1 percent of selenium into the mixture that was to help the ponies recover between matches, it put in 10 percent.

While glad to put the lawsuit behind him, Belden said sitting through the trial brought back horrific memories.

Shortly before a quarterfinal match of the U.S. Open Polo Championships, some of the horses became sick. As they were walking toward the polo field, some fell in a grassy field. Others collapsed in their stables. While trainers and veterarians scrambled to treat them, within hours they were dead.

“It was sad to relive that day,” Belden said.

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