There are many reasons for wanting to become a veterinarian. An abiding love for animals, warm memories of a family veterinarian, or simply continuing a family tradition are among the many motivating factors that compel someone to dedicate their lives to helping and serving members of the animal community. However, like all medical professionals, veterinarians are not immune to legal problems. Investigations and adverse actions against veterinarians can arise in any number of ways, but the two most common sources are malpractice lawsuits and regulatory actions by state Licensing Boards.
The practice of veterinary medicine has expanded in step with the growing trend among our fellow citizens to view their pets as true members of the family, entitled to the appropriate level of love and care. Thus, more animals are referred to veterinary care for more medical issues, resulting in an increasing number of veterinary interactions occurring on a daily basis. The more hours a veterinarian spends caring and treating animals increases the chances of an untoward outcome, which can lead to (1.) a civil lawsuit from the animal’s owner or (2.) investigation and/or adverse action from a state veterinary Licensing Board.
In generations past, pet owners were not inclined to file a lawsuit or complain to their state’s veterinary licensing authority, even when they believed that their veterinarian was careless or incompetent. In addition, plaintiff lawyers considered it a waste of time to file a lawsuit for an injured or deceased pet, due to the relatively low amount of damages awarded for animal injury or death. Today however, the financial consequences of such lawsuits are becoming more expensive for veterinarians and their professional malpractice insurers. Fifty years ago, the financial cost of malpractice tended to be no more that the market value of the animal. Thirty years ago, such lawsuits settled within the $5,000 to $10,000 range. Today, many states recognize that the damages for its loss should be the actual value to the owner, which can include sentimental value, and a few courts have found that the loss of companionship could play a role when measuring a dog’s actual value to its owner. In rare cases where a veterinarian’s conduct was particularly outrageous or intentional, courts can award punitive damages and/or compensation for the pet owner’s emotional distress.
The Role of a Veterinarian Licensing Board
Each of the 50 states have a Licensing Board which licenses and regulates veterinarians within the jurisdiction of that state. The purpose of these Boards is to:
- supervise the practice of veterinary medicine, surgery and dentistry;
- ensure that veterinary medicine is performed in a manner consistent with acceptable medical and ethical standards; and
- adjudicate consumer complaints against licensees.
State Licensing Boards accomplish these purposes by ensuring that all veterinarians have met the educational requirements, passed accredited clinical competency and jurisprudence examinations, and are of good moral character. The Licensing Boards are given broad authority by state legislatures to investigate and prosecute veterinarians who have deviated from acceptable standards of practice; and by requiring all veterinarians practicing within the state to be licensed and registered by the State.
Licensing Boards also provide the public with a means to file consumer complaints against licensed veterinarians. The source of these complaints vary widely and may be filed not only by consumers, but by fellow veterinary practitioners, insurance carriers or disgruntled staff or former colleagues. The subject of these complaints may involve not only the quality of clinical care, but issues relating to (but not limited to) alleged improper billing, shoddy record-keeping, illegal kickbacks, poor prescribing or lack of informed consent. Complaints to licensing boards by staff members at a veterinary practice may include all of the above, but also perceived substance abuse or impairment issues and alleged harassment or boundary issues.
Besides ensuring that a comprehensive insurance policy is in place, which covers against not only malpractice lawsuits, but regulatory actions by licensing boards, veterinarians should consult with experienced veterinary attorneys to learn of the potential risk management and compliance issues which may affect their particular practice. For example, experienced veterinary lawyers can explain which laws, regulations, and ethical rules apply to a veterinary practice, which drugs and dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA, which solicitation and promotional marketing is acceptable and what advertising may lead to complaints and litigation. A skilled veterinary lawyer can advise veterinarians on proper record-keeping, billing, prescribing and dealing with difficult staff and clients.