MODESTO, Calif. (CN) - Shelters that rescued thousands of abandoned chickens can advance negligence and restitution claims against the hens' former owners, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Andy Keung Cheung and Lien Diep, both doing business as A&L Poultry Farms, abandoned their 50,000 chickens in early February 2012, leaving them locked in cages with no food or water. Twenty thousand of the hens had starved to death by the time Stanislaus County authorities discovered the cages on Feb. 22.
As many as 30 hens had escaped their cages, only to fall into giant manure pits below the building. Animal control officers called three rescue groups - Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary and Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary - and those companies sued Cheung, Diep and their company in May to pay for the recovery operation.
In addition to the 20,000 hens found dead that day, authorities had to euthanize another 25,000 that were in agony, according to the first amended complaint filed by the rescue groups in September. Another 460 hens eventually died of their injuries.
A&L Poultry previously claimed that it had abandoned the chickens by accident. To avoid euthanizing the birds after it ceased operations, A&L allegedly tried to deliver the chickens to a third party, but this maneuver resulted in "an unacceptable situation A&L Poultry did not intend, and profoundly regrets."
It has nevertheless fought attempts by the animal shelters to recover the costs of caring for the hens.
In an August demurrer, Cheung and Diep claimed that the groups failed to support their claims of negligence, implied contract, restitution and unfair competition. They also moved to strike the groups' claim for exemplary damages "for wrongful injuries to animals being subjects of property, committed willfully or by gross negligence, in disregard of humanity" under California's civil code.
But A&L Poultry did not cease owning the chickens by walking away from them, Stanislaus County Judge Roger Beauchesne found.
"Someone has to own them - they can't be strays," Beauchesne said at a hearing Wednesday. "The law does not say that the owner of property can't be subject to exemplary damages."
Animal Legal Defense Fund senior attorney Matthew Liebman, representing the animal shelters, agreed.
"There is a difference between legally abandoning the animals and leaving them to starve to death," Liebman told the judge.
A&L Poultry's attorney, Douglas Bosco, urged Beauchesne by telephone to strike the negligence and contract claims.
"The plaintiffs have no legal connection or relationship with defendant, and no property interest in the chickens," said Bosco, of the Santa Rosa firm Daniel Crowley & Associates. "So how can there be a negligence duty to plaintiff? No basis, no relationship, so failure to dissent is not the case here. If there's no showing of a duty, how can there be a contract?"
Liebman shot back that an "absence of a relationship is not a way out of a tort claim."
"The cost of care is reimbursable under [California's anti-cruelty] law," Liebman said. "Advocacy groups have standing because they were acting because of the illegal conduct of the defendants."
At the end of the 30-minute hearing, Beauchesne upheld the tentative ruling he issued Tuesday, which overruled A&L Poultry's demurrer and allows the animal shelters to seek punitive damages.
"Procedurally there may be some issues," Beauchesne said. "I'm confirming substantively."
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