Upset clients are an unfortunate reality of veterinary practices. No matter how experienced the veterinarian or how diligent the treatment, some clients still leave unhappy. In the age of social media, this unhappiness can lead to problems, even when the veterinarian’s care was entirely proper.
Clients can use social media to vent their real and perceived problems, leading to frustration, anger, and a sense of powerlessness on the part of the veterinarian. Thankfully, there are a range of options available to combat these problems. Often, social media attacks can be resolved without resorting to hiring an attorney or the courts. That said, persistent or dangerous social media posts might require a legal solution.
Retaining an attorney—or even exploring the option—is daunting. An attorney is not only a professional, but a confidant, a person with whom you must share your problems (not all of which are flattering) and trust she will safely navigate you and your practice to a satisfying resolution. Exploring your legal options need not be expensive and can bring comfort and clarity to a problem. This article provides a framework for how to think about your legal problem and an outline of the general legal solutions available.
Solving the problem on your own, with or without legal advice
In most situations, you may be successful in resolving the issue on your own. A pet owner may be merely frustrated over a miscommunication. A thoughtful and calm response might not only solve the problem, but also lead to greater trust between you and your client. The internet is replete with free resources and articles (bit.ly/3bs98YL) concerning how to respond to antagonistic social media directed at businesses in general and veterinarians specifically.
If you go this route and live in a state like California, do not publicly disclose confidential information. In California, information relating to veterinary care is confidential, and it is a misdemeanor to improperly disclose it. (Bus. & Prof. Code, §§ 4857, 4831.) If you determine a public response is necessary, the best practice is to keep it brief and leave out any specifics about the clients, their pets, or the treatment.
A generally safe route is to refer to the complaint without discussing the treatment. Here is an example: “We take every complaint seriously and will work hard to get to the bottom of this problem and resolve your issue.” You can then follow up with the client through private communication. For more in-depth information on the ins-and-outs of California’s veterinarian confidentiality law, check out “HIPAA for Hippos? Navigating Veterinarian Confidentiality Laws in California” at bit.ly/2RnKYFh.
Factors to consider when retaining an attorney
To get the most out of your search for an attorney and initial consultation, determine your budget and goals first. What you want to achieve, as well as how much time and money you want to spend to achieve it, will dictate what options are available and how far you can pursue them. Determine the ideal result and resolutions you can live with. There are no guarantees in litigation, but knowing both your best-case scenario and what you feel is an acceptable outcome sets you up to have a productive discussion about your legal options.
Once you know what you want to achieve, the next step is to determine your budget, and not just from a financial perspective. Litigation takes time and has an emotional toll. Time spent collecting documents, preparing for depositions, and worrying about the case is time not spent with friends, family, or on your practice. Consider how much time you actually want to spend thinking about this particular client.
Keep in mind legal solutions are not an all-or-nothing proposition. Hiring the right attorney is crucial for mitigating the financial and emotional toll litigation will take on you and your business. It is important to vet an attorney who is already knowledgeable about your industry to help keep fees down and make impactful progress in the matter. Depending on your goals and budget, and with the right counsel, cases can be streamlined so they can reach a relatively quick outcome with less cost.
A cease and desist letter
The simplest initial option is to have an attorney send a letter demanding the post be taken down. The letter can be as conciliatory or threatening as you would like. The precise tone depends on your goals and the specifics of your situation. Your attorney should help you set the proper tone after discussing with you and considering the facts.
A letter is a low-cost option that often can be drafted for a flat fee and may include an initial evaluation of your other legal avenues. This route also has the benefit of being limited because once the letter is drafted, you can cease pursuing a legal option. Even if unsuccessful, you can still choose to walk away.
The next, more involved step is to mediate the dispute. Mediation is a voluntary process in which a neutral third party—usually a retired judge or experienced attorney—tries to broker a resolution. This involves retaining an attorney and likely paying her on an hourly basis, as she will have to prepare for and attend the mediation. When successful, the parties enter into a binding settlement agreement and the problem can be resolved in a matter of months.
Many times, mediation is a relatively inexpensive and expedient method to resolve a dispute. However, as it is a voluntary process, there is no guarantee a resolution will be reached. Because of this, the cost of mediation usually makes the most sense if you are prepared to litigate a case. In that instance, all the preparation for the mediation can be used in the litigation, meaning your attorney will not have to get up to speed on your case a second time. The threat of litigation can also be used as leverage to bring about a settlement.
Suing the client is the most expensive and time-consuming option, as you will have to retain an attorney on either an hourly or contingency basis. If your agreement is for an hourly fee, you will pay your attorney for each hour she worked on your case. If you have a contingency fee agreement, your attorney will take a percentage of any recovery received. Litigation offers the benefit of a binding conclusion—you can have your day in court and receive compensation for the damage caused by your client if you’re successful.
Litigation comes in three basic sizes: small claims, limited, and unlimited. Small claims are for amounts of $10,000 or less if you are suing as an individual ($5,000 if the plaintiff is a business entity). The rules are simple, the hearing is informal, and neither side is allowed a lawyer. Limited jurisdiction cases cap recovery to $25,000 or less. With limited jurisdiction matters, parties are allowed to be represented by a lawyer and the procedure is simpler; however, the remedies are limited. These cases are designed to bring about quicker results at a lower cost.
Unlimited cases are just that, unlimited. A plaintiff’s potential recovery is unlimited and the full panoply of legal procedure is available. However, unlimited litigation comes with a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars. The type of litigation that best suits your particular problem depends on the amount at issue, your goals, and your budget.
Regardless of the solution you choose, it is always important to remember to take stock of your goals, determine your budget, and seek expert advice when necessary. Whenever you need clarity on those goals, or an expert opinion on how to handle a response, it is beneficial to reach out to competent counsel experienced in the veterinary industry and who will assist you in the proper next steps for your practice to remedy a situation.
Geoffrey T. Macbride is an associate at Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney in San Francisco. His involvement with animals started in his childhood while growing up on what he describes as a “suburban farm.” While Macbride pursued a legal career, his sister followed her love of animals and became a veterinarian. His interest in representing veterinarians grew during his conversations with her, where she shared the legal difficulties veterinary professionals confront and the difficulty they have in getting helpful legal advice. Macbride is known for his pragmatic approach to litigation. Emphasizing on the veterinary industry, his practice focuses on defending business owners in various tort and contract disputes.