Have you all been following the Texas court case about the dog that was mistakenly euthanized at a local shelter? It has been getting a lot of press because the Texas Second District Court of Appeals allowed the owners to sue for the dog’s sentimental and not just its economic value.
The case is heading to the Texas Supreme Court, so nothing has been finalized, but if the lower court’s decision is upheld (similar cases in other states have not been), it would be a big deal for anyone who takes care of other people’s pets — including veterinarians.
I know we’ve talked about "pets as property" in the past, and even after all the back and forth, I still have mixed feelings about cases like these. I’m sure my ambivalence stems from the two roles that animals play in my life. As a pet owner/lover, I would be absolutely devastated if one of my own animals was harmed by a caretaker’s negligence or mistake. Would I file a lawsuit in response? Probably not, unless the case was so egregious that I felt some form of punishment was necessary. If I did sue, however, having the person at fault only be required to reimburse me for my pet’s economic value would be an insult to the relationship I have with my animals. Equating something we become emotionally involved with to a toaster has always seemed inherently unjust to me.
On the other hand, as a veterinarian, both my clients and I financially benefit from the fact that most of the pets that I deal with have very little value in the eyes of the law. My malpractice insurance (never had to use it, thankfully) is only $173 per year (I can hear the gasps from the MDs out there). Pet owners benefit from my low overhead since I can afford to charge lower fees.
Of course there are some bad apples out there, but for the most part, people who work with animals for a living do so because they value them. I take good care of my patients, not because I’m afraid of being sued, but because I honestly want what is best for them. I don’t think that changing the legal status of animals would be the end of veterinary medicine as we know it, but it would make veterinary care more expensive, and not just because of higher malpractice insurance premiums.
When I’m faced with a client who seems to be looking for a reason to find fault with me, I resort to practicing a defensive style of medicine. There is often more than one valid way to approach a problem. For example, if a pet’s condition warrants it, and I’m dealing with a trusted client, I might say something like, "I’m pretty sure that Fluffy has [insert-condition-here]. Let’s try treatment A, and if she isn’t better in a couple of days we’ll reassess the situation."
But, when the person across the exam table is emitting "screw up and you’re in trouble" vibes, I am much more likely to run a couple of extra tests that I could point to in support of my decisions, should that ever become necessary. This will end up costing the client more, but it’s human nature to C.Y.A. when it feels necessary.
I want pets to benefit from an enhanced legal status. I’m just not sure that the advantages conveyed by winning a court case like this one outweigh the potential disadvantages - like reduced access to veterinary care. Guess I’ll have to stay on the fence for now.
Dr. Jennifer Coates