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ombudsman news

issue 131

January/February 2016

complaints involving pets and animals

Pets and animals have illnesses and accidents just as their owners do. And with research suggesting that nearly half of all UK households have a pet, it's perhaps not surprising that we see thousands of complaints each year involving animals.

The complaints we see aren't limited to insurance disputes over vets' bills. In fact, we hear about a wide range of animal-related problems - involving not only pet insurance, but livestock, home and travel insurance, animal charity bank accounts and unsatisfactory pet-related gifts.

Given people's attachments to their pets and animals - which may be part of their family or their livelihood - it's understandable that it can be very upsetting when something goes wrong. Whatever the product or service involved, we'll check the business has recognised this in how they've dealt with a complaint - as well as addressing the financial issue.

index of case studies

  • 131/1 - consumer complains that credit card provider won't give refund for pet portrait under section 75
  • 131/2 - consumer complains after insurer won't pay vet's bills - on grounds that dog's condition was pre-existing
  • 131/3 - consumer complains that insurer turned down claim on her travel insurance after her dog fell ill and she had to cancel her holiday
  • 131/4 - consumer complains that insurer rejected claim for cat scratches on sofa
  • 131/5 - consumer complains that insurer has unfairly turned down claim for vet's bills after dog is hit by car
  • 131/6 - consumer complains that section 75 claim has been turned down - saying that assistance dog training was unsuccessful

131/1
consumer complains that credit card provider won't give refund for pet portrait under section 75

In the run-up to Mrs O's birthday, her husband Mr O commissioned a portrait of her cats. Mrs O's father, Mr N, paid for the painting on his credit card.

Mr O presented the painting to Mrs O at the artist's studio. But once she'd taken it home, Mrs O said she was disappointed with it. The artist agreed to take back the painting and do more work on it. Mrs O remained unhappy - and told the artist she wanted a refund.

When the artist refused, Mr N, her father - who'd paid for the painting on his credit card - contacted the credit card company - saying he thought the purchase should be covered by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. The credit card company took several months to look into Mr N's claim. When they finally replied, they said that since Mr O had ordered the painting, there was no "debtor-creditor-supplier" chain involving Mr N. And this meant section 75 didn't apply.

Unhappy with this answer, Mr N asked for our help.

complaint resolved

We looked through the paperwork that Mr N had sent us relating to the painting. We could see that it was Mr O who'd first got in touch with the artist, and had provided the photos of his wife's cats. He'd also been in regular contact before the painting was completed. When Mrs O had emailed the artist to say she was unhappy, she'd clearly referred to the fact that it was Mr O who had "commissioned" and "purchased" the painting.

It was clear that her father's only involvement had been to use his credit card to pay for the painting on the day. Mr O had since paid his father-in-law back.

We explained that, for a section 75 claim to be valid, a so-called "debtor-creditor-supplier" chain has to exist. Since Mr N, her father, paid for the painting, he was the "debtor". But from what we'd seen, it was Mr O who'd had the contract with the "supplier" - the artist. This meant the chain didn't exist - and the purchase of the painting wasn't protected.

We appreciated that section 75 can be complicated - and Mr N didn't know all the ins and outs before making his claim. We also considered what would have happened if the "debtor-creditor-supplier" chain had existed. In this case, we would've needed to look into whether the painting was of satisfactory quality.

However, having looked at the photos of the painting - and the emails Mrs O had sent the artist - it seemed to us that it was more a question of her simply not liking it. So Mr N's claim wouldn't have been valid anyway.

Given everything we'd seen, we didn't think the credit card company had acted unfairly in turning down Mr N's claim. But we didn't think it should have taken them months to give him their answer.

When we pointed this out, the credit card company offered Mr N £200 to make up for the delays and the inconvenience they'd caused him - and he accepted their offer.

131/2
consumer complains after insurer won't pay vet's bills - on grounds that dog's condition was pre-existing

Mrs G came home from work one day to find her dog having a seizure. She rushed him to the vet's for emergency treatment - and a few days later, contacted her pet insurance provider to claim for the vet's bill.

But when the insurer looked into the claim, they said they weren't going to pay - because the dog had a history of seizures. Mrs G complained about this decision. She explained that her dog was a rescue dog - and while he'd had some small fits in the past, he'd never had anything as severe as the last one.

Mrs G said her dog had never been treated for the fits - and when she'd mentioned them to her vet, she'd just been told to keep an eye on him.

When the insurer wouldn't change their position, Mrs G contacted us.

complaint not upheld

We asked the insurer for any records they had from when Mrs G had first taken out the policy - to see what had been said about the dog's fits.

The insurer sent us a recording of the phone call Mrs G had made to buy her insurance. In the call, the adviser had asked Mrs G if her dog had any pre-existing conditions or illnesses. Mrs G had replied that he didn't.

The adviser had then explained that the insurer wouldn't cover "any illness or condition that was already present" - and Mrs G confirmed she understood.

We also looked at the terms and conditions of Mrs G's policy - which she'd been sent after the phone call. These clearly said that the insurer wouldn't cover "any condition, symptom or sign of a condition" that her dog had "at any time" before the cover started.

We appreciated that Mrs G's dog hadn't had specific treatment for his fits in the past. But from the vet's records that the insurer had asked for, we could see that she'd discussed the fits on at least five occasions.

Based on what we'd seen, we decided Mrs G had been aware that her dog had health problems before she took out her pet insurance. The insurer had asked a clear question about pre-existing conditions - and by not mentioning the fits, she hadn't answered the question accurately.

We asked the insurer whether, if they'd known about the dog's fits, they would have still offered to cover the dog - but perhaps for a higher premium. They told us that they wouldn't have offered cover at all - and sent us their underwriting guidelines, to confirm this.

We were sorry to hear about Mrs G's dog's health problems. But we explained that, in the circumstances, we thought the insurer's decision was fair.

131/3
consumer complains that insurer turned down claim on her travel insurance after her dog fell ill and she had to cancel her holiday

Mrs A had booked a holiday. But she cancelled her plans after her dog became seriously ill and needed an emergency operation.

When Mrs A claimed on her travel insurance for the cost of the holiday, her insurer refused to pay out. They said that they covered cancellations caused by pets needing "emergency life-saving treatment" within a week of the holiday. But Mrs A's dog's operation had happened more than a month before she'd been due to travel.

Mrs A complained about this decision. She said that, since the operation, she'd had to give her dog medication every day to prevent a fatal seizure. She felt the situation was still a medical emergency.

But the insurer wouldn't change their decision - and Mrs A contacted us.

complaint upheld

Mrs A sent us a statement from the vet saying that the dog's medication was "necessary for life". The vet had also said that, given the dog's condition, it wouldn't be appropriate to put him into kennels.

When we spoke to the insurer, they agreed that Mrs A's dog was receiving "life-saving" treatment. But they argued that, since the dog had been receiving the same medication for over a month, it wasn't now "emergency" treatment.

We thought most people would understand an emergency as a one-off, unexpected event. And we agreed with the insurer that the dog's ongoing medication wasn't "emergency" treatment.

But we could also see that, in this particular case, Mrs A had been put in an unfair position. If she continued to provide her dog's life-saving medication, she wouldn't be covered by the insurance because she was preventing an emergency from happening. On the other hand, if she stopped giving her dog the medication, he would have a serious seizure - creating an emergency which would then have been covered by her insurance.

In these circumstances, we told the insurer to pay Mrs A's claim - adding 8% interest.

131/4
consumer complains that insurer rejected claim for cat scratches on sofa

Mr D made a claim on the furniture warranty he'd bought with his three-piece suite, saying that his cat had scratched it all over. The technician the insurer sent to examine the sofa reported that there were several deep scratches.

But the insurer said that "extensive scratching" was excluded under Mr D's policy - and refused to pay out. They also said that Mr D had failed to report the damage as soon as he'd found it - as the policy required him to.

Frustrated with the insurer's decision, Mr D contacted us.

complaint not upheld

Mr D said it was unrealistic to expect him to claim on his insurance every time his cat scratched his sofa - as this would mean making a claim every couple of weeks. He told us that, since his policy covered "unlimited claims", he thought he would claim once a year. He didn't think it made a difference to the insurer, as they'd have to pay out either way.

Mr D also felt his insurance policy wasn't clear enough, as it didn't say at what point scratching would become "extensive".

We looked at the terms and conditions of Mr D's policy. These said that the insurer wouldn't cover "domestic pet damage caused by extensive scratching". They defined "extensive scratching" as:

"incidents of multiple scratching or any scratching which has occurred over a period of time and/or not reported at the time of occurrence."

We agreed that this didn't really give a clear picture about when scratching would become "extensive". And in some cases, this lack of clarity might have had an unfair outcome - because it would mean someone who reported damage immediately might still not be covered, if the insurer chose to define it as "extensive".

But we thought that Mr D's case was different. He'd known that his cat had been scratching the sofa for some time - but had decided not to report it as soon as he could, even though he'd had the chance and the policy document clearly said to do so.

Mr D's policy provided "unlimited cover", but this was only for accidental damage - defined as any "unexpected sudden and unforeseen damage". While cat scratches might be described as "unforeseen or unexpected", we didn't think they could be after they'd already happened once or twice.

In the circumstances, we didn't think it was unfair for the insurer to apply the exclusion - and we didn't tell them to pay the claim.

131/5
consumer complains that insurer has unfairly turned down claim for vet's bills after dog is hit by car

Mr F was walking his dog one day when the dog ran off the path and onto a main road. The dog was hit by a car and seriously injured - and needed several operations and follow-up treatments.

When Mr F claimed on his pet insurance, the insurer rejected the claim. They said Mr F hadn't "taken reasonable steps to make sure the dog was safe" - pointing out that he'd been walking it without a lead near a main road.

Mr F complained. He said he - and other dog owners - always walked their dog in that area without a lead. He told the insurer that his dog had got certificates for obedience - and had only run off because she had been frightened by a larger dog.

When the insurer wouldn't change their mind, Mr F contacted us.

complaint upheld

We studied photos Mr F had taken of the area he'd been walking his dog - as well as some aerial photos and maps. In the photos, there were other people clearly walking dogs without leads. The area was some way below and away from the main road where the accident had happened - and there was no obvious path up to the main road.

Mr F told us he'd been walking his dog along the same route for years. On that particular day, his dog had been scared by a bigger dog. His dog had run off before Mr F had the chance to put the lead on - and he hadn't been able to catch her before she reached the road.

We asked the insurer for a copy of the terms and conditions of their policy. But there was no specific requirement for people to keep their dog on a lead.

Given everything we'd seen, we didn't think Mr F had been unreasonable in walking his dog without a lead in that area - and couldn't have expected or prevented the accident. So we told the insurer to pay his claim for the vet's bills, adding interest.

131/6
consumer complains that section 75 claim has been turned down - saying that assistance dog training was unsuccessful

Mr P, who had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, adopted a specially-trained "assistance dog" to help with everyday tasks.

A week later, Mr P contacted the company who'd provided the dog, saying she was uncontrollable. The company said Mr P could return the dog if he wasn't happy - but refused to give a refund, arguing that the dog was well-trained.

Mr P returned the dog - and as he'd paid for her on his credit card, he contacted his card provider to make a claim under section 75. But the credit card company also refused to refund him, saying there was no evidence that the company that provided the assistance dog had done anything wrong.

Unhappy with this answer - Mr P complained to us.

complaint not upheld

Mr P told us that the assistance dog provider had assured him that the dog would be properly trained, and accredited by a specialist training provider. But he said she simply refused to follow commands - and sent us videos of himself trying unsuccessfully to control her.

When we contacted the company who'd provided Mr P with the dog, they sent us details of the training regime. They said that Mr P had attended classes before taking the dog home and hadn't reported any problems then. They suggested there could be any number of reasons for the dog's behaviour, including Mr P's instructions.

It was clear from the videos that - for whatever reason - Mr P had had trouble controlling the dog. But as Mr P had returned her, we couldn't get an independent assessment to find out if the problems were down to poor training or something else.

In light of what we'd seen, we didn't think there was any evidence that the dog had never been fit for her role. Given the detailed information we'd received about the training - and the fact that supplying assistance dogs was the company's specialist line of work - we thought that it was unlikely that the dog hadn't been properly trained.

We also considered whether the dog's level of training had been misrepresented to Mr P - in particular, whether he'd been told the training was accredited. None of the assistance dog company's documents referred to accreditation - and the company was clear when they spoke to us that the training wasn't accredited.

We noticed that Mr P hadn't suggested he'd been misled about accreditation when he first complained to the assistance dog company or the credit card provider. In our view, if the specialist accreditation had had a bearing on his decision to buy the dog, and he'd found out this wasn't true, he would have mentioned it sooner.

Without any evidence about what Mr P had been told - and given that a potential customer could have checked an accreditation fairly easily - we thought it unlikely that the company would have misled Mr P in this way.

Based on everything we'd seen, we didn't tell the credit card provider to refund Mr P. But we highlighted the fact that he was now without the support he wanted and needed. And following our involvement, the assistance dog company offered to find Mr P another dog.

ombudsman news

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.