September 04, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Last week we began our look into the bizarre situation surrounding a visit to an emergency animal hospital this past July by readers whose German shepherd (Beemer) had just been hit by a car, the accident witnessed by its owner (Jim.) But instead of their dog receiving treatment, after it was given a morphine injection, they were ordered to leave the hospital and go elsewhere. Jim is a police officer who maintained that he did nothing wrong, and the actions of the hospital staff and on-duty vet were completely unjustified.
But there are always two sides to most stories. Jim at first refused to give permission for You and the Law to discuss the incident with the hospital – then stated in writing that it would be OK – and then withdrew that permission. In spite of that, we were able to obtain a far more balanced view of what happened that night. More on those specifics in a moment.
As we discussed last week, there are significant differences in legal obligations where animals and humans are concerned. There are times when a vet or an animal hospital may indeed refuse to treat, but if the patient were human, there would be a duty to provide care.
Reasons why the vet will not treat
“Much like human medicine, there needs to be trust on both sides when the consumer first brings their animal in to see the vet. It’s not a legal relationship at that stage, so much as a trust relationship – the client trusting the veterinarian to take care of their pet and the veterinarian trusting the client to provide accurate health information and trusting the recommendations and treatment of their pet,” commented Susan Geranen, Executive Officer with the California Veterinary Medical Board.
“Veterinarians may legally refuse to treat, where they do not like the pet owner, feel ill at ease in the owner’s presence or are concerned for their own physical safety or the safety of their staff. In human medicine, you are dealing with the patient directly. In veterinary medicine, the patient is the animal. It is the owner who speaks for the animal. There absolutely has to be trust on both sides.”
In a true emergency, must the vet treat an injured animal?
What led to Jim’s contacting You and the Law was his outrage that Beemer was given a morphine shot and then they were all sent away. Even though the dog’s situation was not worsened by the delay in getting to another hospital, Jim still wants to do what he can to “have the vet’s license revoked, because they denied my poor dog appropriate care.”
“It is understandable how someone could be so upset if it’s a human hospital, where there is generally a legal obligation of treating a true emergency. But it is different with an animal hospital. The difference is that there is no legal obligation to treat. Animals in all states are considered as property. Humans are humans with a much higher legal standard of care at medical facilities,” Geranen points out.
“Yet, most vets will try to treat an injured animal, but this is obviously conditional on being able to work with the owner. If an owner becomes loud or disruptive, this may not just make it difficult, but impossible. Where there is reasonable fear of physical injury to staff members from an owner who appears out of control – possibly under the influence of some substance – the vet is facing a conflict that could make it necessary to refuse treatment or even call the authorities,” she maintains.
“The fact that no harm came to the patient is important, especially where the original doctor did a visual assessment and determined that the animal could be transferred with pain mediation only,” she points out.
The hospital’s position
The hospital had every right to discuss non-treatment issues – what the staff observed. Paraphrasing what I was told, “His behavior was demanding, argumentative and frightening. He actually challenged the doctor to a fight!”
“We were seconds away from calling 911 when they all left. Human vomit was found in the exam room, consistent with extreme intoxication.”
During my chat with Jim, something which might partially have explained his actions became clear. He was carrying a far greater burden of guilt than he seemed aware of. For, literally in an instant, that July evening, what had been happy moments for a dog and its master – out playing in their front yard – turned to tragedy. If ever there was a time to keep Beemer leashed, this was it, but nothing ever happened before, so why leash him now?
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.