Agency and the Vet Bill

Determining who gets the vet bill is important to establish early in a relationship with a horse owner or trainer.
Author:
Publish date:
Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

The farm call is the lifeblood of most equine practices. Veterinarians know the important questions to ask about the patient: Accident or injury? Current condition? Obvious clinical signs such as temperature, pulse and respiration? And so on.

However, an important question that often goes unasked, especially before rendering services, is: “Who gets the bill?”

Determining financial responsibility for veterinary services rendered might not be an issue when dealing with established clients, and sorting things out in an emergency probably is not practical. However, when possible, especially with new clients, veterinarians should establish whether the horse owner will be billed directly or whether responsibility lies with the farm manager or trainer who made the call. Failure to do so can be a recipe for disaster.

A case in point: When two horses in his barn needed veterinary care, Standardbred trainer Dennis Laterza put in a call to Dr. DiCicco, his regular veterinarian. DiCicco treated the two horses over a period of three months, in the process sending their owner, Calvin Oliver International Racing, Inc., monthly invoices for his services. The first bill, for $645, was paid without complaint, but the horses’ owner refused to pay the subsequent two bills totaling $1,920. DiCicco eventually sued in a New York small claims court to collect the delinquent bills. The small claims court judge ruled in DiCicco’s favor and awarded him the full amount due.

At trial and on appeal, the horse owner admitted that he owned the horses in question and that Dennis Laterza was his trainer during the period when DiCicco treated the horses. The owner argued that he had no obligation to pay DiCicco’s invoices, however, because Laterza had no authority to call the veterinarian. Instead, the horse owner claimed that he had given specific instructions to Laterza that only a certain veterinarian practicing in Port Deposit, Maryland, was authorized to treat the horses. Port Deposit, it turns out, is located approximately 170 miles from Yonkers, the New York racetrack where DiCicco treated the Calvin Oliver horses.

Neither the trial court nor the appellate court specifically addressed the impracticability of a veterinarian in Port Deposit making a 340-mile round trip to Yonkers as a rationale for awarding the disputed fees to DiCicco. The trial judge simply ruled, and the appellate court affirmed, that Laterza “had actual or apparent authority to engage [DiCicco]’s services.” In other words, the trainer was the owner’s agent and in that capacity could incur expenses such as vet bills on the owner’s behalf.

“Agency” is a legal relationship between a principal (in this case, the horses’ owner) and the agent (trainer Laterza) that allows the agent to conduct business with third party service providers such as DiCicco. A principal then is obligated to pay bills incurred by an agent on the owner’s behalf. (Although it might be a fine legal point, the fact that the horses’ owner paid the first of DiCicco’s invoices before refusing to pay the others probably ratified the trainer’s authority to hire the veterinarian.)

Practitioners wishing to avoid issues similar to DiCicco’s should be certain that a trainer or farm manager has the authority to incur expenses on behalf of the horse owner.

The unpublished opinion is: DiCicco v. Calvin Oliver International Racing, Inc., 2014 NY Slip Op 50706(U) (April 16, 2014).