Historically in the United States, animals have been relegated to the legal status of personal property or chattel.
Based upon this classification, writes California Western’s Prof. Mark Weinstein in a recent law review article published in Animal Law by the Lewis & Clark Law School, many states have provided veterinarians with lien status giving them leverage in collecting fees for services rendered.
Pursuant to state statutes, veterinarians are given a special possessory lienholder status that allows the veterinarian to retain the patient/animal claiming a superior right of possession that can be exercised against the owner of the animal if the owner cannot make full payment or make other payment arrangements satisfactory to the veterinarian.
In his article, Prof. Weinstein examines and compares the lien and abandonment laws protecting the economic interests of veterinarians and those of automobile repair mechanics. The owner of an automobile repair shop is typically provided with a state statutory mechanic’s lien. Both types of liens are possessory which provides protection to the lienholder.
Similarly, the veterinarian and the auto repair business are not required to return the property in question until the bill is paid in full. And, if the bill is not paid within a certain period, under both types of liens, the property can be sold or otherwise disposed of in order to reduce any financial harm suffered by the lienholder because of the unpaid bill. They operate in a similar fashion because companion animals and automobiles are both legally deemed to be personal property with no inherent rights of their own.
But, says Prof. Weinstein, dogs and automobiles are very different from each other and should not be treated in a similar fashion. An owner of an automobile can deliberately damage his car with a sledgehammer. As long as no one else was hurt or damaged by the owner’s actions, it would be looked upon as a rightful act of ownership. On the other hand, if the same person engaged in the same conduct on his dog, it would be viewed as criminal and treated very differently under various state statutes.
Our society has recognized that dogs, in spite of being classified as objects of personal property by the law, have certain rights because of their status as living beings. The critical link here is that owners have informally elevated the status of dogs from personal property to ‘members of the family.’
Veterinarians clearly benefit economically by supporting the view that dogs are like members of the family. When owners view dogs as members of the family, they are willing to spend more money on veterinary treatment and care. However, in our society, the refusal to release a human patient to his or her family would never be tolerated.
As a result of this dichotomy, and the hypocritical positions taken by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), veterinarians are encouraged to treat dogs as members of the family in order to generate more income but then are allowed to treat dogs as tables or automobiles if the dog’s family can’t pay the bill.
Veterinarians should not be afforded the extra protection of a lien law to protect themselves from unpaid bills. They are the only health professionals afforded this protection.
Veterinarians can employ other methods before accepting the dog as a patient to ensure the owner can pay for the treatment. I And in the event of an owner fails to pay, the same collection mechanisms available to any creditor are available to veterinarians.
It is time, concludes Prof. Weinstein, for the AVMA to recognize these dynamic changes and advocate for the abolishment of antiquated lien laws. Dogs are clearly more than mere property and the AVMA’s attempt to shove dogs back into a box that no longer fits should be abandoned.
The justification of special treatment of veterinarians for collecting fees no longer works. Instead, rather than resisting change, the AVMA should be at the forefront of redefining the rights of dogs and their human companions in our current society.
Read Prof. Weinstein’s complete article here: