Veterinarians, like medical doctors and lawyers, are subject to malpractice lawsuits that call their professional conduct into question. Veterinary malpractice cases revolve around a significant error that a veterinary professional, with advanced education and experience, should not make. For example, misdiagnosing an illness or providing the wrong course of treatment could potentially be classified as instances of veterinary malpractice.
Most veterinarians provide excellent care for the animals under their supervision, but veterinary malpractice lawsuits are not uncommon in today’s litigious society. In fact, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that approximately one out of every 19 practicing veterinarians reported a potential malpractice claim in 2011. Over the course of their careers, and with sufficient patient volume, most veterinarians will face at least one potential malpractice claim.
Malpractice claims can be quite costly in terms of compensatory and punitive damages. Veterinarians can even face consequences from the state licensing board (including suspension or termination of their license to practice medicine), so malpractice is certainly a serious issue for professionals working in this field.
Conditions for a Veterinary Malpractice Claim
A report by the Michigan State University College of Law found that several conditions must occur before a veterinarian can be found guilty in a malpractice suit.
First, the veterinarian must have accepted the duty of treating the animal. Second, the veterinarian’s actions must have fallen below the professional standard of care that would have been provided by an average veterinarian in the community (or, if the vet is a specialist, they would be compared with other specialists in their field).
Third, the subpar standard of care must have caused or significantly contributed to the injury or harm of the animal. Fourth, the owner must establish that they have suffered damages (such as a financial loss) from the situation.
Veterinary Malpractice Defenses
The lawyer representing the veterinary defendant must show that the services provided were adequate and met reasonable standard of care requirements. If they are able to accomplish this, the suit will likely be dismissed.
An additional veterinary malpractice defense option involves citing the statute of limitations if it has expired. The statute of limitations places specific limits on the amount of time an owner is allowed to file a suit, and this can vary from one state to the next. If the statutory period has passed, the veterinarian cannot be held liable no matter what the merits of the case might have been. Most state statues require that a suit be filed within a period of one to three years.
Another defense is known as the Good Samaritan defense. The Good Samaritan defense is applicable in instances where a veterinarian provided care in emergency situation at the scene of the accident, which could absolve them from any claims of malpractice (though a lesser charge of gross negligence could still be pursued in some instances).
If found guilty of malpractice, the veterinarian may be liable for significant financial damages such as the cost of the treatment to fix the animal’s injury, replacement or market value reimbursement for the animal, punitive damages, and (more rarely) sentimental value or emotional distress damages.
Veterinary Malpractice Insurance
Many veterinarians carry veterinary malpractice insurance that covers the cost of legal defense and payment of claims if they should become the target of a malpractice suit. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s PLIT program, for example, provides insurance for more than 60,000 veterinarians. Annual premiums for PLIT malpractice insurance in 2015 ranged from as little as $173 to as much as $2,365 (based on the specific type of practice involved and the dollar amount of coverage desired).
Coverage automatically extends to each veterinarian’s non-veterinarian employees, but each veterinarian in a practice must carry their own individual policy. There are also many other companies offering malpractice coverage to practicing veterinarians.
Veterinary malpractice suits continue to be a growing issue in the animal health and animal law fields. Practitioners should be very familiar with the qualifying conditions for a malpractice claim, and they should take a serious look at securing malpractice insurance to provide coverage for any potential legal issues that could occur.