Laws for Paws: Medical malpractice laws for pets

By By Patti Lawson
Laws for Paws
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Veterinarians are bound to certain responsibilities when it comes to caring for your dog. Know your rights when it comes to pet malpractice.

Pet owners spent $15.95 billion dollars on vet care for their animal companions in 2016. New advances in animal health care and services might be the reason for the 3.4 percent increase from 2015.

Research from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute makes people more aware of the health benefits they receive from their pets, which in turn makes pet parents more willing to get the best medical care available for their beloved companions.

“Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, ‘get a pet’ belongs on that list,” said Steven Feldman, HABRI executive director. 

What happens, though, when the care of your pet is substandard, resulting in harm or death to your four-legged companion?

Just as there are strict criteria medical doctors must adhere to, veterinarians are held to high treatment standards. When either of these professions negligently veers from established care norms, you and your pet have legal rights. How much research did you do for your dog’s doctor?

Did you know every state has a board of veterinary medicine where you can check the credentials of a vet before trusting him or her with your dog’s life?

The veterinary board will also have information about complaints filed against veterinarians. These are extremely important when selecting a vet who will provide the best care for your dog. Taking time to research a vet beforehand could save you from serious problems for your dog or having to file a vet malpractice case.

When you take your dog to a veterinarian for treatment you become a client, and you are bound to certain responsibilities such as promising to pay the bill, following the instructions given for care, and providing truthful information to assist in care and diagnosis of your dog.

The veterinarian is bound to certain responsibilities, as well. These are set forth in the policies of the governing agency that oversees veterinary practice in the state where your vet practices. Almost all states in some form use the policies set by the American Veterinary Medical Association. AVMA provides a general guide of ethical responsibilities for member veterinarians, and they must abide by these standards for both their animal patients and human clients.

Membership in AVMA is voluntary, but membership and licensing in your state agency is mandatory. AVMA’s general guidelines are divided into three categories: professional ethics, criminal law and civil law-malpractice cases.

We have the West Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine, through which every veterinarian is required to be licensed. West Virginia State Code Chapter §30-10-1 et seq. gives authority to the board through the state code of regulations to establish standards of practice for veterinarians. The Veterinary Board’s website has useful information as well as reports of disciplinary actions taken against West Virginia veterinarians.

Pet owners may file complaints against veterinarians for negligence or improper care of their pets. Filing information for how to do this is on the website.

The board will investigate the complaint, and a hearing may be held, unless the client and the veterinarian enter into a consent agreement. This is where each party agrees not to pursue a lawsuit and accept the findings of the board and the specific punishment recommended for the vet.

The vet may be reprimanded and have his or her practice supervised for a period of time. Vets may have their license suspended and be required to obtain further education. Their license can also be revoked. Other sanctions may be imposed such as:

n physical improvements to their veterinary facility

n periodic inspections of their facility

n continuing education for a certain length of time

n prohibition of performing certain medical procedures

Every disciplinary action against a veterinarian is reported to the American Association of Veterinary State Boards Veterinary Practitioners Disciplinary Database and becomes a public record.

A pet owner may also bring a civil lawsuit against a veterinarian for malpractice if the vet has acted outside the standards of practice resulting in harm to a pet. If the negligence resulted in the death of your pet, you can also have a wrongful death claim. A competent personal injury attorney will have no problem proving a vet has committed malpractice.

However, determining damages can be tricky. Pets are still considered personal property in West Virginia, and their value is limited to their market value. If you have a purebred dog you paid $1000 for, that would be your damages, plus the vet bill and any costs associated with the lawsuit. Emotional damages most likely would not be considered.

Other states have passed laws deeming pets are family members who have an emotional value that is taken into consideration. Juries can award emotional damages as they did in a California case when they deemed the dog had “special value” beyond the $10 market value and valued the dog at $30,000.

They also awarded the pet owner an additional $9,000 for the egregious actions of the veterinarian (Orange County Superior Court Case #00CC00796).

Criminal law applies when a vet commits a criminal act such as animal cruelty or if he or she fails to report animal cruelty or abuse. These kinds of claims are brought by the prosecutor or district attorney where the harm occurred. Veterinarians are mandatory reporters for any suspected illegal treatment of the pets they see, and vets must report abuse and neglect of the animals that come through their clinics.

Choose your veterinarian wisely by using the resources available to you. The oath a veterinarian takes is named “First Do No Harm,” but if your beloved pet is harmed by negligent care of a veterinarian, you have legal rights to recover damages.

Nothing will replace a pet you love, but a complaint or a lawsuit may save another person’s animal companion.

Patti Lawson is an award-winning author and attorney. She has written for the Huffington Post, AOL Paw Nation, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and other publications. She lives in West Virginia with her two beloved dogs, Sadie and Rusty. Visit www.pattilawson.com. Her recent book, “What Happens to Rover When the Marriage is Over? And Other Doggone Legal Dilemmas!” is available locally at book stores or on line at Amazon.com and other locations.

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