Task Force Created to Study Legal Issues in Veterinary Medicine

The AVMA created a Task Force on Legal Status of Animals July 26, 2004, to provide “appropriate intervention [in the legal realm] to ensure that [court] judgments are based on logic instead of emotion to protect owners, animals and the profession,” said Janet Donlin, DVM, assistant executive director.

The group was assembled in response to an increasing number of legal issues affecting veterinarians, and it will comprise 15 content experts, including John Albers, DVM, AAHA executive director. Their responsibilities will include defining the pros and cons of noneconomic versus punitive damages, the issue of owner versus guardian and legal ramifications for the loss of an animal.

In the case of punitive and noneconomic damages, the awards “are like night and day,” said Kent McClure, DVM, JD, general counsel for the Animal Health Institute in Washington, D.C. “If you’re trying to limit liability for veterinarians, punitive damages are better. You’re not awarding pain and suffering or mental anguish, and it wouldn’t apply to your run-of-the-mill malpractice case.”

Punitive damages are awarded for egregious conduct when a jury determines that a veterinarian intentionally harmed an animal, McClure explained. Noneconomic damages, such as emotional distress and loss of companionship, are more difficult to quantify because they are subjective, he added.

Task force members will also compare language in current laws to pending legislation for animals with regard to noneconomic damages and guardianship.

For example, loss of companionship can only be recovered by spouses in human medicine cases, said Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, Esq., task force member. And emotional distress awards can only be recovered if a person physically witnesses an accident. For example, you might be able to collect emotional distress damages if your child was killed in front of you, said Lacroix, owner of Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc., Whitehouse Station, N.J.

To date, McClure said that there has been a “lot of noise” at the trial court level about the award of noneconomic damages. But so far “the appellate courts have been consistent in saying, ‘no, you can’t do this,’” he added.

Over the last few years several laws have been changed to include the word guardian instead of owner, a change that McClure calls innocuous because, in each instance, guardians are defined as owners in the law. The concern, he said, is that at some point activist groups will try to expand the definition to mirror that of human guardians, who must put the interests of wards ahead of their own, McClure explained. And he asked, how will that affect spays, neuters and euthanasia?

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