Nov
14
2007

Fifteen states have adopted pet lemon laws to protect consumers from buying pets with pre-existing conditions. Although each state law is different, some include congenital and hereditary conditions. A bill that includes stricter regulations on breeders and a statutory warranty for pet stores was introduced in the Ohio legislature last month.

From New York and New Jersey to California and some states in between, laws provide new pet owners with the right to return, exchange, or have veterinary bills refunded. Some doctors offer pre-sale exams but most veterinarians who see newly-purchased pets will experience a need to educate their clients about these laws, said legal experts.

Veterinarians frequently see newly purchased pets with varying forms of disease despite the fact that doctors contracted by pet stores have cleared them for sale. As long as pre-existing conditions are identified within a certain timeframe (most laws specify 18 days), clients can be reimbursed for veterinary expenses, said Michael Maddox, director of legislative affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC).

These lemon laws “represent a unique situation [for] animals as opposed to products,” Maddox said with reference to the replacement clause. Customers “come to know and love a pet and don’t want to get a new one necessarily. They want their animal, and they want it to be healthy.”

PIJAC, which has pet stores as members, supports the legislation as long as provisions are reasonable, said Maddox. Most cap reimbursements at one to two times the cost of the pet, which is not a new concept to stores. “Historically, quality pet stores provide warranty protection anyway. They want to stand behind the animals they sell,” Maddox explained.

To date, veterinary associations have supported lemon laws, and legal experts advise professionals to keep abreast of the news so that they can advise clients about their rights.

“A would-be buyer should insist on a pre-purchase examination by a veterinarian of the buyers choice—not the sellers veterinarian—before any money changes hands,” said Gregory Dennis, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. “If the seller is not willing to do this, or will only agree to a pre-purchase examination by the sellers veterinarian, the would-be buyer should walk away from the deal.”

The location of sale is also relevant to the application of lemon laws. If the buyer and seller live in different states, which law applies?

“I have even had situations where the seller and buyer met in a state half-way between themselves for the animal to be delivered, and the question then arises, does that third states law apply” Dennis asked.

For practical purposes, Dennis advises veterinarians to check their malpractice insurance to clarify coverage. Insurers do not usually cover claims predicated upon fraud, intentional misrepresentation, or violation of consumer protection laws, he added.

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