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Where Liability and Outrage Diverge

R.I.P. Scruffy

Scruffy the Cat

The problem with policies is that they have an incredibly dehumanizing effect on people working for a company. People often hide behind them and use them as an excuse for making unpopular and possibly awful decisions.

Where there is usually some level of thought put into policy questions are at small not-for-profits, or such has been my experience. They generally deal with people on a one to one, face to face basis and therefore are less likely to hide behind a policy, rule, or other dehumanizing piece of paper.  So, imagine my surprise when I read this story about the Arizona Humane Society.

Click the link and read the story, but to summarize it, Daniel Dockery took his 9 month old kitten to the Humane Society, a place where people of few means usually go to find a vet, and did not have the cash on him to pay the $400 bill:

“The Humane Society cited policy when it declined to accept a credit card over the phone from Dockery’s mother in Michigan or to wait for her to wire the money. The staff said if he signed papers surrendering the cat, Scruffy would be treated and put in foster care, he said.

Instead, Scruffy was euthanized several hours later.” [AP via Yahoo! News]

So, the Humane Society’s staff talked him into giving up the cat, and because it would save them time and resources, euthanized it. By the way, the cut that the cat sustained sounded serious, but it was not life threatening, and it’s always possible that Dockery could have found another vet.

What makes it more tragic is the fact that Scruffy was essentially Daniel Dockery’s reason for staying off of heroin. Dockery had owned the kitten from before the time the kitten had opened its eyes, and he had stayed clean that whole time.

Understandably, the cat loving population on the internet is outraged. So much so that the Humane Society of Arizona had to hire a publicist to do damage control for them.

As a lawyer, this kind of thing breaks your heart because there is so much you want to do, and so little that you can do to fix the situation.

It is a little known fact that veterinarians can be held liable for malpractice just like medical doctors. They are held to a similar standard of knowledge and care, and can be sued for being negligent or malicious just like a doctor. However, they are allowed to make judgment calls that doctors are not.

They are allowed to let their patients die when they could save them, and in some cases, to kill them so long as there is a reasonably sound medical, humane, and/or business reason for doing so.

Here, Scruffy was put to sleep for the sake of expediency and because the clinic simply could do it.

Now, let’s not fault the Humane Society’s staff too much. They did not talk Dockery into giving Scruffy up because they wanted to kill his cat, and the staff no doubt ignored some policy or another in doing that. They did that, because that is a common move at animal shelters. When someone is unable to pay, they tell someone to hand their pet over, allow the Society to fix what ails the animal, and the adopt it back later.

However, when you do that, you transfer ownership of your pet to the animal shelter. Because your beloved pet is only considered to be a possession, like an iPod, which you have given to the shelter, they can (humanely) destroy it if they want.

And because the clinic was backed up, Scruffy was euthanized mere hours after he was delivered to the shelter. Clearly, someone forgot to tell the vet they were trying to help Daniel Dockery out.

While it is infuriating to think that this type of thing can happen, the vet was allowed to make what was more or less a business decision based upon an internal policy to treat the animals of paying customers, and to simply kill the shelter’s animals which they would have to treat for free, because it would affect the shelter’s bottom line.

Dockery can’t even sue the shelter in small claims court for Scruffy’s value as property, because Scruffy wasn’t his anymore and there is no liability on the vet or the shelter’s behalf.

While the shelter is paying for their mistake in the name of bad press and reduced donations, there will be no real justice for Scruffy and Daniel Dockery. It is a damn shame, and incredibly outrageous.

About Omega Disability

The Omega Disability Blog is contributed to by Omega's advocates. Please contact us with any questions about the disability process. We would be happy to help!


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