One of you raised an interesting point yesterday on the potential effects of the now-infamous pet food recall on the legal industry with respect to pets—and their vets. I’ve thought about it a lot, especially since I’m personally at risk for a lawsuit on this issue.

First, a reprisal of my POV on the malpractice thing:

I’ve long-argued that our pets are worth so much more than the miniscule, barely-nominal payouts law suits bring to rightfully aggrieved parties. But the corollary is ominous to vets (and pet healthcare in general), as bigger payouts mean more defensive (read: expensive) medicine, more stress in our workplace and less personalized care, if human healthcare is any guide. 

However, if your pet is truly harmed by someone’s negligence you deserve more than the price you paid for your pet. You deserve to get reasonable compensation based on your demonstrable efforts to provide good care for your charge throughout her life. In other words, no ginormous payouts for those bringing suit after their prize-fighter pit bull loses a leg to my negligence (if you put your pet at risk you deserve to share the blame).

Onto the recall:

The pet food recall, when everything shakes out, will almost certainly yield bigger than average sums from the pet food companies or their manufacturers for each pet affected.

Don’t think there aren’t lawyers out there scheming and spoiling for a fight. It’s already in the works in the form of a class-action lawsuit. I just hope the affected parties are smart enough to choose a decent law firm after a proper look-see. They’ll certainly have their options. But the best won’t typically be the ones knocking on their doors—that’s the difference. And getting hundreds of bereaved pet owners to agree on proper counsel? Good luck.

Who will ultimately pay? I can assure you that there’s no political will in our government to let any of us sue China over pets. (We want access to their consumers, so the Chinese granaries aren’t exactly shaking in their boots over this.) The deep pockets we’ll be looking towards will have to be domestic. Even suing a Canadian company (Menu Foods) poses a challenge to US pet owners.

So what will they be suing for if we can’t punish the source of the toxin?

Consider the basic injustices committed by the pet food companies—in taking what I consider a collusive vow of silence in an effort to diminish their liability. This, alone, I view as excellent fodder for a civil courtroom drama. They'll take the brunt of the losses, for sure.

Now as to the effect on us vets:

The pet food companies have also managed to shirk their responsibilities to vets so egregiously as to let their [historically] best allies hang out to dry.

Consider that some of us are actually at risk of being sued as well. How about my own case, where we failed to examine a chronically ill pet on the day she turned up her nose at her food? She’d done the same thing many times in the past. But this time was different. She was in acute renal failure by the end of the weekend. She had called on the Thursday before the recall. Because we failed to examine her immediately (which we feel terrible about, now), we are potentially liable for the increased severity of her condition over the period during which we failed to treat her.

I don’t expect to be sued, because of all we’ve done and because we’ve been extremely honest and have cared for her well. But still, an owner failing to find appropriate redress with the pet food companies could theoretically bring suit against me.

Don’t think for one second that I’m the only vet in this position. I’m sure there are hundreds of others. And we’re not happy about how the pet food companies have thrown us under the bus on this one with their narrow-minded, protectionist tactics.

Although I don’t plan to be directly affected, consider that any suits in this case will likely establish much-needed precedents in increased payouts to pet owners, How much? Even if 100 pet owners get $10,000 for their pets that’s far more than average and it will, mark my words, have repercussions in the way vets work. We vets, too, will be at risk for similarly large settlements.

And so my malpractice insurance will rise (not that it’s high)—because more lawyers will be willing to take on more cases. And my work stress will inevitably be greater, as I’ll need to be that much more vigilant in dealing with borderline cases where I could have done better had I the luxury of Monday-morning-quarterbacking myself.

I, as a fair-minded (I think) pet owning vet, see both sides pretty clearly. I believe our pets are worth more to most of us. But I’m scared of what that means for my professional life, too. And so I crave a balanced resolution to this issue. Yet if human healthcare is any guide, I don’t expect we’ll ever reach that delicate balance. Instead, I believe we’ll end up cutting ourselves on the sharp edge of the tipping point.

But for now, the cat's still in the bag. The pet food recall will probably (hopefully?) change that.

(Thanks for the post topic tip-off, Eric.)