Implications of Rising Veterinary Malpractice Awards and Tips for Avoiding a Veterinary Malpractice Suit

0 Comments Posted by Vet Network in Blogs, General, Legal, Pet Law, Pet Trends, Veterinary Malpractice on Tuesday, June 12th, 2012.

Written by:
Mark Feltz, DVM
Monica Feltz, J.D., LL.M.

Final Part in a 3-Part Series on Veterinary Malpractice

Implications of Rising Veterinary Malpractice Awards

Although the arguments formed by pet owners and animal activists should be heard while determining proper veterinary malpractice fees, opposition views must also enter into the debate before drastic alterations entirely change the face of the veterinary industry. There is great concern in the medical community that high judgments or awards in veterinary malpractice lawsuits could drive up the costs of animal care, just as they have for human care. Just as doctors are forced to pay high rates to cover their malpractice insurance, veterinarians would have to do the same if found guilty of veterinary malpractice, thereby driving up the costs of services for both vets and their clients alike. A Pepperdine University law professor, Richard Cupp, has stated that awarding emotional damages to pet owners will likely only result in more expensive veterinary care that leads to less pets receiving treatment and greater overall suffering.

Further, the value of a pet’s companionship is difficult to gauge and placing price tags on the emotional value of pets may prove an unfair and futile exercise. Experts have testified that “if a pet is thought of as a family member by its owners, its value is whatever the owners think it is … [and] this value could be as high as the national debt.”

Big Vet Malpractice Awards Don’t Necessarily Improve Veterinarian Care

Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, allowing huge awards may not even improve or otherwise affect the quality of care a veterinarian provides, as has been revealed in numerous human medical malpractice studies. What is perhaps most predictable and undesirable, however, is that many young, bright students may no longer be willing or capable of entering into the profession with such grave financial sacrifices and risks, without the accompanying compensation. A veterinarian will never be capable of charging the prices of human care, yet the costs they may be forced to choke up because of veterinary malpractice suits could very well rival them.

Although animals undoubtedly hold a very unique place in our hearts, it may not be necessary or even desirable for this to be reflected in the law. At the very least, with veterinary malpractice suits on the rise, due consideration of the various consequences associated with this change must be acknowledged before a new trend potentially changes the face of an entire profession.

In the meantime, here are some tips to help you avoid a veterinary malpractice claim:

1. Keep in regular communication with your clients and employees. Remember: you can be liable (veterinary negligence) for the actions of your employees.

2. Disclose risks of procedures and treatments and obtain necessary consent forms.

3. Maintain proper records and sanitary conditions at your hospital.

4. Don’t hold yourself, or your employees, out as specialists when this is not the case. Here, liability is assessed according to those with a similar specialty, rather than against an average member of the veterinary community. Veterinarians who portray themselves as specialists in certain areas must be able to back it up with the appropriate credentials; otherwise, you may face lengthy trials, heavy legal fees, and probation of your medical license. This is exactly what William Langhofer, DVM, experienced in 2009 when he was taken to court for negligently misrepresenting himself as an exotic pet “specialist” on his website, when this wasn’t, in fact, the case. Don’t let this be you.

5. Be careful how you portray yourself. By all means, use social media, but be mindful of what you (and your employees) say and how it’s said. Before posting a blog, tweeting, or Facebooking about your hospital or services, ask yourself whether it’s true or could be construed as misleading. In fact, it could be wise to create internet policies that your hospital and employees are expected to follow.

6. Keep confidential information to yourself. Especially in the online age, it is important to also ask whether you may be disclosing confidential client information that a potential entire online community could be viewing. Once a message is sent, there’s no turning back!

7. Know your defenses! Many states have 2-3 year statute of limitations that prevent plaintiffs from filing a suit long after the injury. There are also good samaritan statutes that absolve vets from liability when rendering emergency care (unless there is gross veterinary negligence).

8. Keep up with your licensing, and practice quality and dependable animal care.

As the value of animals continues to increase under the eyes of the law, the number of lawsuits filed against veterinarians – and the associated monetary claims – will inevitably increase right along with it. Thus, it is important that you and your staff understand the implications of this changing area of the law (veterinary law), and properly adjust to best protect yourself against any future legal veterinary malpractice claims and their consequences. Use your social media wisely and ensure it’s being properly maintained and monitored, otherwise you could be held liable for the consequences, and they’re not pretty.

Remember, nobody expects you to save every animal you treat, but they do expect you to act with the due care that is expected of you in your profession. Hopefully the law will come to strike the right balance between veterinary and pet owner rights, but until then, hold on and prepare yourself – it may be a long and bumpy ride!

Previous Articles in the Veterinary Malpractice Series

Part 1 – Veterinary Malpractice: Veterinary Malpractice and What It Means To the Practicing Veterinarian

Part 2 – Veterinary Malpractice: A Brief History of Veterinary Malpractice

Copyright © VetNetwork, LLC / Mark Feltz, DVM, Monica Feltz, J.D., LL.M.

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