Many states have veterinary liens on their books, which are statutes that give veterinarians legal authority to retain custody of a client’s animal as security for an unpaid debt for services rendered.
While a lien can be a valuable tool for securing payment in some situations, there are risks to the veterinarian, including a malpractice complaint from a disgruntled client and costly litigation.
A recent case decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals (Gomez v. Innocent, 746 S.E.2d 645) demonstrated the potential risks associated with exercise of a veterinary lien.
Pet owner Josh Gomez took his dog Pilot to PetFirst Animal Hospital late in August 2007, where the pet was treated by Dr. Garry Innocent for a potentially fatal virus. According to the court record, Dr. Innocent gave Gomez an estimate of $1,453.25 for Pilot’s treatment. Although full payment at the time of treatment was the policy of PetFirst, Dr. Innocent agreed to accept $400 for the first night’s care. When Gomez called the clinic the next day to ask about Pilot, he was told by an employee that he owed an additional $751.25. There reportedly was no discussion about whether there would be additional charges.
Gomez paid the $751.25 and attempted to take Pilot home, believing that his bill had been satisfied. After Gomez put Pilot in his car, he was told that he still owed the clinic $484.80. He was unable to pay, and Dr. Innocent asked him to leave Pilot at the clinic until the outstanding bill was paid. Gomez agreed. Twenty days later, a friend paid Pilot’s bill, which had grown to $972.
Gomez filed a lawsuit against the clinic and Dr. Innocent. After a bizarre trial during which the judge dismissed the lawsuit before Gomez had even finished presenting his evidence, the case wound up in the Georgia Court of Appeals. The appellate court reversed the lower court and remanded the case for a new trial. Almost seven years after Pilot was treated, the case still is winding its way through the court system, with no end in sight.
Pilot’s veterinary bill eventually was paid in full, so the lien served its purpose. Although veterinary liens may be utilized more often in small animal practices than in equine practices, a question that veterinarians should consider before exercising a lien is whether payment for services justifies the potential costs in legal fees, time and aggravation.