On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. SC-982-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and Fuentes.
Plaintiff, an equine veterinarian, appeals from a judgment of no cause of action, after a bench trial in the Special Civil Part, in a suit for recovery of the fees he charged for veterinary services performed on a horse owned by defendant, named "River Runs Red." The horse was trained by co-defendant Rick Bilach, who defaulted before trial.*fn1
Plaintiff testified that before he began performing veterinary services for defendant's horse, he had a conversation with defendant during which defendant asked him to "[d]o everything you have to do to take care of my horse." Plaintiff further testified that the trainer, Bilach, approved the specific veterinary services he performed on River Runs Red. Defendant denied that he had any conversation with plaintiff or gave him any other form of authorization to perform veterinary services on his horse, for which plaintiff billed him a total of $1,866. Defendant did not deny that the services were performed or claim that they were unnecessary.
The trial court credited defendant's testimony that he had not authorized plaintiff to perform veterinary services on River Runs Red and, based on this finding, concluded that plaintiff had not established the existence of an express contract for those services.
During the course of the hearing, plaintiff's counsel attempted to question his client about the practice in the horse racing business of veterinarians dealing with trainers rather than horse owners in providing veterinary services. Defendants objected to the relevance of such questions, and the trial court asked plaintiff's counsel the purpose of this line of questioning. In response, plaintiff's counsel stated:
I just wanted to clarify that if the Court decided that the conversation never took place, that as an alternate theory of recovery is that the veterinarian worked with the trainer, the trainer ordered the services, he's an agent, he has no liability, the liability falls on the owner.
Because there -- it's a four count complaint, Your Honor, the quantum meruit, the goods and value of services -- However, the trial court ruled that such questions were not relevant because the only issue presented by plaintiff's complaint was whether defendant had contracted with plaintiff for veterinary services:
[T]his is a basic contract case [.]... Elements of contract are offer, acceptance and consideration.
Later in the trial, the court reiterated its view that "the [only] issue before me is really the credibility of these two gentlemen, whether or not a contract existed between them."
We conclude that the trial court erred in not allowing plaintiff to pursue a claim for quantum meruit as an alternative basis for recovery for the veterinary services he performed for defendant's horse. Plaintiff's complaint alleged: "Defendant Rick Bilach trained horses for Defendant Darryl Thomas. Plaintiff provided veterinary services for the horse 'River Runs Red.' Payment has been demanded and has not been made." These allegations could be read to assert a claim for a quantum meruit recovery just as easily as a claim for breach of contract, particularly in view of the liberality with which pleadings in small claims cases are generally read. See MD Assocs. v. Alvarado, 302 N.J. Super. 583, 586-87 (App. Div. 1997).
Defendant relies upon the fact that plaintiff's counsel checked off "Contract" with an "X" as the category of claim being asserted on the small claims form complaint. However, the only other choices listed on the form complaint were "Security Deposit," "Rent" and "Personal Injury or Property Damage (other than motor vehicle)." Recovery on the basis of quantum meruit is generally understood to be a part of the law of contracts even though such a claim is not based upon an express contract. See Weichert Co. Realtors v. Ryan, 128 N.J. 427, 439 (1992). Therefore, the trial ...