We Can’t Have It Both Ways

In a court of law, that is, our profession rejects the human-animal bond.

I’ve suffered the disgrace of a malpractice lawsuit–no, not mine. But I served as a witness in a case brought against another veterinarian. The deposition was an uncomfortable experience (understatement).

Restraining my unfortunate inclination towards verbal excess was the hardest part, yet I managed. And so did my colleague on the hot-seat, by the way. I’m sure he’s almost gotten past the night sweats nearly two years after the fact.

In case you’ve never been the defendant –or unwitting witness– in a lawsuit brought against you or your hospital for negligence, malpractice or (God forbid!) animal cruelty, let me inform you that it’s just what you’d expect: a nightmare worthy of the post-traumatic stress disorder that we spared folk can only imagine. 

Perhaps I hyperbolize, but it’s no stretch to say that most of us worry a whole lot about being sued. I do. But as a generalist, I’ve got it easy.

Our profession rejects the human-animal bond—in a court of law, that is.

I’m lucky enough to know my every client and have the luxury of investing time in their trust. The specialists, ER docs and high-volume vets? They’re not so fortunate. I’ve gotta guess they live in high-anxiety mode relative to my measly unease.

But mostly that anxiety’s a little overblown compared to our human medical brethren. They’ve got some serious angst to contend with on the legal front.

My friends and family in the OB/gyn field (all three of them) find themselves on the deposition circuit every year or so. That’s the cost of doing business in Florida these days. They suck it up and fail to stress because it happens to all of them, regardless of experience or skill.

We vets are new to it. I think that’s why it hits us harder. And yet precious few of us really have much to worry about—yet.

My PLIT expenses for the year? Less than $300. My friend the OB/gyn’s? $140,000! It’s no wonder a wholly uncomplicated delivery costs $15,000 in Miami. By contrast, we vets have a long way to go before we’ll be passing significant expenses onto our clients.

Nonetheless, we collectively wring our hands over the prospect of a modest bump in our legal expenses and malpractice insurance, the worry brought on by an ostensibly looming onslaught of suits spearheaded by those who would seek compensatory damages beyond the pallor of the price-per-stray price-point.

Our goose-pimple patients these days are older pets of undistinguished pedigree worth nothing but the front-clip harness their owners paid 30 bucks for last week. But if you think about it, these pets are worth far more than that to us.

In practice management terms, our patients are income streams incarnate. We recognize the future value of each individual patient, a flexible denomination that balloons and contracts based on proof of our own emotional investment in their care.

Uniforms, sensitivity-trained staff, paw-print memorials and all the rest pay homage to the emotional factor, that human-animal bond we worship.  

No matter what the glossy practice management periodicals tell us, our profession rejects the human-animal bond—in a court of law, that is.

We may not participate directly, but we leave it to our profession’s representatives to beseech courts and legislatures to consider adverse repercussions of high-priced settlements and assessing emotional damages.

In case you’re not aware of our profession’s stance, here are our most oft-cited reasons for opposing claims for emotional compensation:

  • Higher payouts mean steeper malpractice premiums and higher prices at the pump (that’s us).
  • “Emotional compensation” smacks of a move towards “guardianship” and the latter concept opens up a can of worms neither we nor our clients are prepared to deal with.
  • Bigger money awards mean more lawsuits and we’re scared of lawsuits. The human medical paradigm and the ridiculously high-priced jury awards are usually brought up here.
  • Compensation for emotional damages is arbitrary since emotional attachment is difficult to prove.

Presenting our rationale, even in this thumbnail sketch, it’s tough to completely disagree with the logic, or sentiments, it conveys.

And yet the dichotomy between how we practice (with an eye towards recruiting our clients’ emotional sympathies) and how we defend our right to do so (rejecting financial claims to emotional attachment) still leaves me cold.

Perhaps that’s because what we understandably want for ourselves is at odds with what our clients may well deserve. Perhaps our apprehension, though warranted, is unrealistically driving our profession’s policies in ways that are not ultimately morally or politically sustainable.

Here’s another consideration: We’re all aware that our clients continue to face rising healthcare costs. It’s also clear that our communities care increasingly for their non-human companions. Legal remedies are already available for a variety of property designations and emotionally damaging conditions.

Isn’t it inevitable, then, that our country will carry on with its inexorable drive to legislate in favor of expanded compensatory damages for the loss of its pets? Given that inevitability, are we willing to stand publicly in defiance of the tort system as it applies—just to us?

May’s Menu Foods settlement offer (not yet approved by the presiding New Jersey court at press-time) is a perfect example of how our legal bodies will continue to move in a direction we veterinarians will be hard-pressed to push back against. Should a $900 check arrive as refund for your Fluffy and the toxic food she consumed, how would you feel– suspicious of the precedent-setting settlement … or cheated?

How about if the airline leaves Fido on the tarmac for three hours in the blistering heat in spite of your onboard pleas? You’d want the responsible parties to pay more than the value of his now-useless crate and well-worn Coach collar.

Much as we hate the prospect of increased malpractice premiums, what we really dread is the condemnation of our clients—especially when it’s meted out in legal terms.

We don’t really disagree with the concept of dispensing justice fairly. We don’t really want to bar our clients from seeking just compensation for the lives of their animals. We simply don’t care to be the target of our clients’ quest for justice—an understandable sentiment for any legal entity, whether we’re Menu Foods, X Airlines, Y Animal Hospital or Dr. Z.

But is it fair for us to have it both ways? Doesn’t having it thus, by definition, put a crimp in our integrity? Ultimately, what kind of havoc might that wreak with our standing in the community? With our professional reputations? With our self-respect as loving caregivers?

After my close brush with a posh downtown law firm, aggressive attorneys and a dyslexic court reporter, I’m convinced I never want to repeat the experience. Nonetheless, I don’t see our profession’s hard-line stance against emotional compensation as a viable long-term position. This battle’s not winnable–or fair.


Patty Khuly, DVM, blogs regularly at www.dolittler.com.

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