Professional Liability and Fearmongering in Vet Medicine
Last week I received a postcard in the mail. On the front was an image of a pack of big, bad German shepherdy type dogs, looking all snarly and spiky-scruffed. The caption was something like: "We’ve got your back." I paraphrase, since I threw it out in a huff and can’t remember the words exactly. It ticked me off, but I couldn’t quite say why at the time. After thinking about it I decided that maybe — just maybe — it had something to do with the sender: my professional liability insurance carrier.
Most veterinarians carry professional liability insurance. It costs me about $350 a year and I always forget to renew on time, dammit!
Which is why right now, my insurance is expired. No biggie. I can "go bare" occasionally, seeing as I understand the reality of what’ll happen if I’m ever sued: not much. It’ll be a pain in the butt, but it’ll be over with as soon as I hand over a simple settlement consisting of a couple thou on my credit cards to cover the price of the pet in question. (It doesn’t matter who’s right when you can’t afford a lawyer to fight for you — though I do have friends …)
Back to the German shepherds. I don't know, but I guess I thought it was tacky. Like those lawyers who advertise themselves as "sharks," and worse — "pit bulls." Unseemly. Unprofessional. Litigious.
It’s all that. But closer to the bone is this assessment: it’s fearmongering.
Lest you get attacked by those who deserve our big bad vicious fighters, be sure to sign up to the PLIT (Professional Liability Insurance Trust), they seem to be saying. The legal world is so unsafe, so uncertain, so frightening, that nothing less than this is what’s required in modern veterinary practice.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the degree to which we veterinarians are held accountable for our bad behavior. In short, we’re not. I’ve seen it firsthand. While more veterinarians are being sued overall (and I do believe that most are frivolous suits undertaken by wackos, as happens in every industry), I see veterinarians doing bad things and getting off scot-free … on a regular basis.
Why? Because there is no system in place where bad veterinarians can be reported by their peers. When aggrieved pet owners do demand retribution, whether in the form of a simple apology, an action against the vet's license, or monetary compensation for what they believe they’ve misspent, the State Board is embarrassingly slow and terrifically biased against taking any action whatsoever, except in the most egregious cases.
(I should know. I’ve been involved with a solid negligence and borderline fraud case for over a year now, if you can believe it.)
It’s also because there is no recompense for lost pets beyond their monetary value. And what is the value of a pet? Unless it’s a bomb sniffer, a show dog or a service pet, we’re talking negative sums here for the vast majority. In the eyes of the law pets are property, just like toaster ovens. And if someone kills your toaster oven you might just qualify for a new one — but in this case, seeing as the State Board is so lethargic, you’d do best to take the offender to court first.
Every profession has its bad apples. This we know. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is this: It’s veterinarians who resist the changes at the board level and in the court system. We refuse to allow pet owners recompense to more than the assessed property value of their pets, even should the courts prove that egregious damage was done.
As a profession, we reject the notion of accountability, citing pets as property. This, in spite of the fact that we enjoy a brisk trade almost exclusively as a result of the emotional value our clients place on our patients.
Now that I’ve undertaken this tirade I can now more accurately pinpoint the root of my displeasure upon witnessing all those not-so-friendly furry faces on the front of last week’s postcard: It’s damned insulting to be goaded into buying a product on the basis of a low-level risk. More so because I now think I get why so many well-meaning veterinarians fear being sued: because they’ve been sold an invisible bill of goods that claims they need be afraid.
Still, I think I'll be renewing my PLIT membership soon. Peace of mind is why I buy insurance. But no, I won't be sold on the basis of fear.
Dr. Patty Khuly