Practice Doesn't Make Perfect: Veterinarians And Liability (Malpractice) Insurance
I was at a party recently when a friendly obstetrician posed an indiscreet question. She leaned in and in a near-whisper asked, "How’s your liability insurance?"
Like a gorgeous young model being asked by a middle-aged schoolmarm what it’s like to be beautiful…I hedged. "It’s not so bad for vets" was my self-effacing reply.
This obstetrician used to pay $100K a year for the privilege of knowing a jury couldn’t garnish her wages and take all her money should the unthinkable occur. Since medicine is only as perfect as humans, the unthinkable occurs much more often than an obstetrician deserves to suffer for it (especially since most obstetric suits arise from basic bad luck where the physician is powerless to affect the outcome). So most physicians in high-risk positions (obstetrics, surgery, anesthesia) pay big money to protect themselves from the inevitable lawsuits.
Sick of paying exorbitant amounts to the legal and insurance professions, she stopped paying her premiums and sunk the savings into her house—her only untouchable asset according to Florida law (which explains why some physicians drive crappy cars but have gorgeous homes).
So what about my malpractice insurance? I pay about $500...a year. Veterinarians don’t carry much liability insurance. We don’t have to. Malpractice suits are just not that common. If Fluffy dies under anesthesia I don’t get hauled in for a deposition and a complaint isn’t automatically lodged against my license. Both can happen, but it rarely does.
“What’s up with that?” you ask. Taking the ridiculous level of human medical liability insurance out of the equation (I won’t get on my soapbox today) I’ll concentrate on why veterinarians pay so little for their malpractice protection.
1. Pets are property in the eyes of the law. If Fido dies under anesthesia in your practice and his owners prove, in a court of law, that you were somehow at fault, then they are typically able to collect only the amount his owners can prove he’s worth. And what is a ten-year-old miniature poodle worth? To his owners, he’s priceless. To a judge, maybe $50. Horrible, but true.
2. Pain and suffering does not factor into it because loss of property does not usually result in serious pain and suffering. Consider your wedding ring. If the jeweler loses it, he’s only liable for the price of the ring, not for the pain and suffering you feel at the loss of a sentimental item (and the wrath of your spouse). So, according to the law, your $50 cat is regarded at the same level as a really cheap ring.
3. Hiring a lawyer to sue your vet is expensive. No lawyer I’ve ever heard of is content to accept a case like this (egregious negligence notwithstanding) without a retainer. They’d never make any money if they took this case on spec. And you’ll never make as much money out of the situation as you’d pay out in legal fees. In most cases, small claims court is as far as you’ll ever get.
Therefore, the only reason to take a case to court is for retribution and justice, not for remuneration or financial satisfaction. And this is more easily achieved by lodging a complaint against the vet’s license than by taking him to court.
The Board of Veterinary Medicine in my state takes all complaints very seriously and, if enough evidence exists, holds hearings to determine whether a licensee should be fined, placed on probation, suspended, or have his or her license withdrawn. Fines are common. Revocation of licenses is rare.
I would like to see a day when pets will be worth more than the price you paid for them and a time when veterinarians will be held to the same standards as other professionals. But I’ll never be proud to see my profession go the way of obstetrics. As humans, none of us should be held to the standard of perfection and good fortune. And none of us should have to work with $100K a year hanging over our heads as an incentive—or threat—to do our job well.