Vet Week: Veterinary Malpractice

{I do not support frivolous or retaliatory lawsuits, however, I don't think vet week would be complete without addressing this oft-asked about issue}

Veterinary malpractice is quite different from medical malpractice.  Most obviously, in medical malpractice a human being has (allegedly) been injured, whereas in veterinary malpractice it is personal property (the horse) that has been injured.  
Veterinary malpractice is different than suing for veterinary negligence, though both involve establishing that the vet has violated the standard of care (acting with the skill expected of a similar veterinarian under a similar circumstance, or of a Reasonably Prudent Person).
 They key distinction is that malpractice applies to those acting in a professional capacity.  Originally malpractice claims were limited to doctors or lawyers, but now the definition of "professional" has expanded.  Some states specifically include veterinarians in the malpractice statutes/ laws, while others do not.  
California Business and Professions Code (Section 4883) specifies that a vet may have his or her license suspended, revoked, or other penalty for violation of particular veterinary professional rules.


One of my favorite equine legal resources, the animal law center at Michigan State University (a link is in embedded in a photo in the left column of this blog), provides a great example to highlight the distinction between veterinary negligence and veterinary malpractice:

When a veterinarian is acting in other than his or her professional capacity, the normal negligence standard is used. For example, if a veterinarian performs surgery on a horse, the surgery shall be judged under malpractice standards, but if a veterinarian is arranging for the transportation of a horse by trailer, the reasonable person standard applies, since the activity is not within the bounds of his professional knowledge or skill.

It should be noted that even if an animal owner succeeds in the malpractice action, financial recovery is typically rather minimal for the death of an animal, especially as compared to the loss of a human life, because the animal owner must prove monetary damages to him or herself (and less commonly, emotional damages are recognized).
 Examples of financial loss: the death of a stallion that earns income from cover fees or a winning racehorse that can no longer race due to veterinarian wrongdoing.
Often the vet fees can be recovered, which are often also recoverable in a private settlement with the vet, thus sparing the high costs of litigation.

If you feel your horse has suffered from veterinary malpractice, consult with an equine attorney who can evaluate whether you have a case or not.
We all need to remember that just like doctors, veterinarians cannot always save every patient despite using the best skills and technology available- suing the vet will not bring your horse back to you.

Here is a checklist of what you should do if you suspect your veterinarian of malpractice (it is brief but very helpful!)

Click here for veterinary malpractice cases, some of which the horse owner won, and some of which the defendant veterinarian won.

Further b(law)g resources:

Equine attorney Julie Fershtman shares a post in which she was featured on the radio show Horses in the Morning.  In the show she discusses what is, and what is not, veterinary malpractice.

And Alison Rowe's equine legal blog shares a number of articles on veterinary malpractice.  She has a great summary of preventative action to veterinary malpractice, with which I will close this post:
Take aways: 
1) Use good vets that you know and trust; if you don't know a good vet, ask other horse owners in the area for a referral; 2) if your horse is valuable, get major medical and mortality insurance on the horse; and 3) if you suspect malpractice, your first call should be another veterinarian so you can get an idea of whether or not the standard of care was breached. That will be your ultimate issue.