I recently played schoolteacher at my local law school.
Like most U.S. law schools, this one has been entreated to adopt animal law offerings in advance of the burgeoning number of animal law cases. With topics as diverse as death benefits for pets, common cruelty cases, puppy mill claims and veterinary malpractice scenarios, animal law is making significant inroads, at least in the classroom.
Lawyers-to-be have pushed for animal law curricula at their schools, and students have packed the classrooms. Though not all have gone on to make a difference in animals’ lives through law, the population of lawyers waiting to tackle significant animal cases is undeniably growing.
According to a February Associated Press story, “Incidents of [animal] abuse and a shifting national consciousness have made this one of the fastest-growing fields in the legal profession. In 1993, just seven states had felony animal cruelty laws; today, all but four do.”
That’s why law schools are looking for veterinarians willing to lend a vet’s-eye view to those who would either see us squashed like a bug in a malpractice lawsuit, fight on our side against those who commit crimes against animals, or push for higher standards for treatment of animals in agriculture, industrial and home settings.
The goal of my presentation? To have law students understand what veterinarians are up to and up against, to get them to understand how we think and why.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Most veterinarians are leery of lawyers in the extreme. We resent their intrusion into our professional lives, assuming the realization of their clients’ claims against us is the extent of their role. We usually don’t think about the many ways in which veterinarians are defended by lawyers, or how attorneys can help us reach the goals we’ve pledged to support: advocating for the health of and alleviating the suffering of animals.
Consider these situations:
- The neighbor caught poisoning cats with antifreeze.
- Puppy mills that abuse our future patients.
- Not-for-profits that pursue legal protection of endangered wildlife.
- The appointment of a trustee for a bereaved pet.
- The raising of treatment standards for agriculture species.
These are the common stomping grounds of modern animal law. Except for those examples that may not mesh with your political worldview, most fit the bill when it comes to satisfying our collective interests as veterinarians.
By contrast, actions against individual veterinarians tend toward the seriously piddling. The law students cackled when I described our anxiety over malpractice law.
But your exposure is negligible! All you’re likely to lose is the price of the pet and a day of depositions!
To which I nodded and agreed. And yet some of you, my colleagues, bristled when I described my experience talking shop with “the enemy”:
- I wouldn’t get too close to those bloodsuckers.
- Don’t you know you’re adding fuel to their caustic fire?
- You’ve obviously never been the victim of a malpractice suit—yet.
It’s not as if I spent the afternoon dishing out trade secrets or throwing my profession under a bus. I simply agree with the contention that lawyers are my enemy only when they represent stupid people I’ve never actually harmed in any way, or harmed less than they claim.
And if I have harmed a patient, the lawyer is my enemy only if I’m stupid enough to:
- Fail to apologize—immediately!—when I know I’m wrong.
- Refuse due financial recompense to my patient’s owner (which I’ve always managed without a lawyer’s help).
Odds Are in Your Favor
That’s the true state of affairs in modern malpractice law for veterinarians. Even if you manage to find yourself the rare recipient of a courtside seat, rest assured you’ll be in an elite club that represents less than half of 1 percent of all veterinarians on the planet. And you’ll probably still win.
“Sure,” you say, “that’s all well and good for now. But should non-economic damages for pets become the norm, we’ll all be screwed and you’ll be sorry. When your malpractice premiums rise to an unaffordable level so that you have to pass on the costs to your patients, what will you say then?”
Um, if you added a zero to the price of our average malpractice premiums, they still wouldn’t add up to a practice’s modest telephone bill.
The Bigger Question
Which begs the question: What is it that really scares us? The specter of higher prices for our clients or the fear of retribution?
If it’s the former, you would do better financially to talk to your food and drug reps about their products’ increased prices, discuss the inventory costs you shoulder or revisit your business insurance premium.
If it’s the latter, perhaps you should question why our society uses lawyers at all. If the sad state of affairs in our culture is such that people can’t work out their personal disputes, then what do we expect? If the reality is that some veterinary practitioners deserve to be sued—no, defrocked—and are not, how can any thinking person assert that the law has gone too far?
We should all be so lucky to live in a world where the law works fairly and efficiently. I don’t dispute that it does not function to the tune we would all merrily dance to. But the legal profession does attempt to support us in areas we’re devoted to, just as it tries to punish those who would betray our collective professional trust and that of the public that relies on us.
In fact, if veterinarians don’t become more realistic about how animal law affects all of us, including the integrity of our profession and its goals, it’s the animals that stand to suffer. <HOME>
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at www.dolittler.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.