Effects of the Lien and Abandonment Laws Upon Veterinarians in California
Every year the Veterinary Medical Board receives numerous phone calls and requests for information regarding the effects of statutory lien provisions on the practice of veterinary medicine. In response to those requests, the Board asked the Legal Office of the Department of Consumer Affairs to issue an opinion regarding these provisions.
This opinion addresses statutory provisions for both the lien and abandonment laws.
Three issues are raised in the exercise of the lien and abandonment laws. First, whether a veterinarian is lawfully entitled to hold an animal for payment after treatment has ended. Second, whether a veterinarian is entitled to payment for providing room and board for the animal during such holding period. Third, when a veterinarian is lawfully entitled to destroy an animal if payment is not paid.
It is clear that under the provisions of the Civil Code, a veterinarian is authorized to hold an animal for payment after treatment is ended and payment for services due.
While not entirely clear, a veterinarian appears to have a possessory lien for boarding and feeding an animal after it is ready to be claimed by the owner and during the statutory lien period.
A veterinarian is permitted to destroy an animal that has been abandoned if he or she follows the procedures set forth in section 1834.5 of the Civil Code.
LIEN LAW. According to Civil Code sections 3051 and 3052 a veterinarian may keep an animal after treatment if the bill is not paid. If the amount due for veterinary services has not been paid within 10 days after the payment has become due, the law authorizes the veterinarian to sell the animal. However, he/she must give at least 10 and not more than 20 days notice to the owner prior to the sale. The proceeds of the sale must be applied to the discharge of the lien and the cost of keeping and selling the animal. The remainder, if any, must be paid to the legal owner.
It should be noted that the statutory lien provision does not permit the veterinarian to kill an animal which has been liened, but only to sell it. In fact, any veterinarian who threatens to kill an animal which he/she has liened, is subject to prosecution by the board on the charge of fraud under the provisions of Section 4883(i) of the Business and Professions Code (California Veterinary Practice Act).
ABANDONMENT LAW. According to the statutory abandonment provisions (Sections 1834.5 and 1834.6 of the Civil Code), if an animal is not picked up within 14 days after it was due to be picked up, the animal is considered to be abandoned.
Once the animal is determined to be abandoned, the veterinarian must keep the animal an additional 10 days while attempting to find it a new owner. If after the initial 14 days and the additional 10 days (for a total of 24 days) the legal owner has not retrieved the animal or the veterinarian has been unable to locate a new home for the animal, the veterinarian may humanely destroy the animal in compliance with the notice requirements and formalities of these sections of the Civil Code.
One contingency, however, is that if the owner attempts physically to retrieve the animal or otherwise contact the veterinary facility, or give notice of intent to retrieve the animal within the initial 14-day period, even though the veterinarian’s bill has not been paid, the animal cannot be considered to be abandoned.
There shall be a notice posted in a conspicuous place, or in conspicuous type in a written receipt given, to warn such person depositing an animal at such animal care facilities of the provisions of this section.
An abandoned animal, as described in Section 1834.5, shall not be used for scientific or any other type of experimentation, nor shall such an abandoned animal be turned over to a pound or animal regulation department of a public agency.
Several questions have arisen with regard to these legal provisions and opinions. The following questions reflect some of the more important concerns:
1. Can a veterinarian charge for food, shelter and medical treatment when the animal is determined to be legally abandoned?
The veterinarian's legal right in such a case depends on the terms of the oral or written contract between the animal's owner and the veterinarian. In the absence of any specific agreement, there is an implied contract to pay a reasonable amount for services requested.
2. At what time is the animal considered abandoned if first liened?
If a veterinarian refuses to release an animal and first places a lien on the animal in order to protect his/her lien right, the animal would change from being liened to being abandoned when: (a) the veterinarian had given the owner of the animal express notice that the lien right was being relinquished and that the animal could be picked up on a specific date; and (b) the owner of the animal had not picked up the animal or otherwise contacted the veterinary facility regarding the animal within 14 days after the date specified in the veterinarian s notice of relinquishment.
3. If medical services are rendered after the animal becomes liened, can this cost be recovered?
According to the opinion of the legal office, the Civil Code (Section 1892) precludes the veterinarian who is exercising lien rights over an animal from claiming compensation from the owner for any trouble or expense incurred during the lien period, except if the costs were incurred to preserve the animal from an expected and unusual injury or because of concealed defects in the animal. Practically speaking however, a situation involving both unexpected and unusual injury would be rare. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to convince a court that an animal suffered from any "concealed defects" when one of the areas of a veterinarian’s expertise is to diagnose the condition of the animals in his/her care.
4. If the owner abandons the animal and recontacts the veterinarian, at which point does the 14-dav period begin?
If the animal is considered abandoned according to Section 1834.5 of the Civil Code and the owner re-contacts the veterinarian, the 14-day period begins to run from the day, which was arranged during the re-contact, on which the animal was to be picked up.
5. What recourse does the veterinarian have to protect his or her interests in these kinds of situations?
If there is concern on the part of the veterinarian about payment for professional services, a retainer or deposit might be required before the services are rendered. An alternative course of action for a veterinarian to ensure future payment by a client who is not able to pay for the services when they are rendered, would be to consult with their private attorneys for advice on the various securities which might be required or other methods by which debts for veterinary services might be lawfully collected through the court process or otherwise.
If you have any other questions regarding these provisions and legal opinions, or if you wish to receive further information, including copies of the applicable laws, please contact CVMA, 1400 River Park Drive, Suite 100, Sacramento, California 95815, (916) 649-0599; e-mail [email protected], or the Veterinary Medical Board, 2005 Evergreen Street, Suite 2250, Sacramento, California 95815, (916) 263-2610.