Avoiding Malpractice Liability: A Guideline for Veterinary Practices
What is Veterinary Malpractice?
Veterinarians are regulated by state board of examiners and a few governmental agencies, such as the DEA and OSHA. Veterinary malpractice refers to a situation where a veterinarian has failed to meet the reasonable standard of care when providing healthcare to an animal. Malpractice generally occurs when a veterinarian falls below the normal standard of care, which then causes injuries to an animal. The standard of care for veterinarians is like other professions, which adheres to the normal practices and protocols in the field which practitioners are expected to follow.
In order to prevent medical malpractice, veterinarians should be aware of a few general principles regarding negligence. To recover and/or prevail in a malpractice lawsuit, a pet owner has to prove the following four elements by the preponderance of the evidence: (1) the veterinarian had a duty of care to treat the pet; (2) the veterinarian failed to meet the professional standards of care; (3) the pet was killed or became sicker because of a veterinarian’s incompetence; (4) as a result of the injury, the pet owner experienced some kind of harm such as an economic loss or emotional distress. However, lately there has been a shift in the considerations for the fourth factor in many courts. Under common law pets are viewed as property, and usually can be replaced with another pet. However, now courts are starting to view pets more as family members in some jurisdictions and this is changing precedent. This change in the assessing of damages will likely lead to a rise of malpractice suits for veterinarians.
Differentiating Malpractice and Examples of Malpractice
It is also important to differentiate between veterinarian malpractice and the concept of simple negligence – a mistake by a veterinarian does not always amount to malpractice. In contrast to a simple mistake, malpractice is based on the level of a veterinarian’s professional competence or judgment. There is a myriad of reasons that a veterinarian may face allegations of malpractice, which includes:
i. Incorrectly or delaying the diagnoses of an animal’s illness.
ii. Providing the wrong treatment or medicine. This can also include failure to provide treatment when an animal is in need.
iii. Recommending a treatment plan that is inappropriate.
iv. Stopping treatment prematurely.
Addressing an Accusation of Malpractice
The way a veterinarian addresses an accusation will depend on the allegations set forth in the lawsuit, state board complaint, or both. Immediately upon receiving a complaint, the veterinarian should contact his/her professional liability insurance carrier and ask for advice. Typically, the insurance carrier will require the defendant to fill out forms in which the veterinarian describes the circumstances leading to the claim. A claims representative will then review the facts and make a recommendation regarding a course of action and assign an attorney for a defense. When dealing with a letter from the state board, the veterinarian will be defending conduct on his/her own expense, since professional liability carriers generally do not provide coverage for state board actions. In this situation, it is highly recommended to obtain legal advice as to how long to respond to such allegations and have an attorney review the letter.
Avoiding Client Complaints
The best measure to avoid facing a lawsuit or state board investigation is to take measures to avoid client complaints. To start, periodically evaluating your practice and identifying areas where preventative measures can be made to avoid complaints. Veterinarians should also regularly consult their staff, colleagues, and even insurance carriers to ensure that they are aware of preventative measures adopted by other practitioners. Staying up to date with developments in the legal liability field should be an integral part of a veterinarians continuing professional education. In this area, a preventative attitude is always the best approach.
Professional Malpractice allegations can come in the form of a civil lawsuit or state board action and require veterinarians’ immediate attention so as not to compromise their defenses. Preparing a defense against such allegations is facilitated by having knowledge of the law of negligence and an understanding of the adjudicatory process. Nonetheless, the best defense lies in addressing client complaints when they first arise by using honed listening and communication skills, keeping abreast of the standard of care within the industry and adopting preventative measures.
For more information contact Peter H. Tanella at firstname.lastname@example.org.