Veterinarians, Students Consider Concept of Economic Damages, Pet Selection Consultations Across the

As conversations about non-economic damages swirl in veterinary circles, a veterinarian and several students have created an “Evolution of Cost” spreadsheet that may increase a pet’s economic value in court while sidestepping the issue of emotional or non-economic damages. Although there is no consensus as of yet, some professionals are intrigued by the prospect of offering an alternative to non-economic damages. Others worry that if veterinarians embrace economic damages it opens the door for more non-economic damage cases.

The difference between the two terms non-economic and economic damages is proof of purchase, or paper receipts, said James Wilson, DVM, JD, who created the spreadsheet. He is currently researching options for publishing the spreadsheet online for professional and consumer use. Presentations about the use of this spreadsheet, which could play a role in court cases, have been held across the country. Wilson spoke to the Colorado VMA (CVMA) in May 2004.

“We are absolutely reluctant to see the door opened on non-economic damages so this may be a viable opportunity to help quantify economic damages. It seems to us to be a far better approach,” said Ralph Johnson, executive director of the CVMA.

The spreadsheet, which was referenced in a short Wall Street Journal story, shows that an average owner could spend $8,000 in veterinary bills over the lifetime of a small-breed dog. 

Wilson foresees veterinarians using the spreadsheet as a compromise to non-economic damages in court. “If we oppose everything we look like self-serving jerks,” said Wilson, who has also proposed a new definition of pet, which would allow courts to award higher economic damages if pet owners could prove their expenses in court. If adopted by states, the spreadsheet would elevate damages instead of giving owners the market value of a companion animal.

“Since we’re always being picked on, we have a tendency to oppose any change in our liability as veterinarians, [which makes us] look like unaccountable doctors.” His spreadsheet, which lists lifelong costs of a pet, from collars and pet food to rabies vaccines and dog beds, would offer a reasonable alternative to the increasingly popular question of non-economic damages, he said.

Unlike non-economic damages, which include emotional pain and suffering, the economic damages enumerated in the spreadsheet, can be defined and identified with receipts, Wilson said. “How can our profession argue against that?”

Wilson has pitched this theory to professionals during several seminars across the country, and broaches the subject of using the spreadsheet to conduct Pet Selection Counseling sessions with students in about 14 schools. The students, he says, embrace the concept wholeheartedly. And while professionals are intrigued by the concept of the selection counseling, the group is split 60-40 percent with the larger group accepting the concept of economic damages.

“Practitioners rely on the bond every day for people to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their pets,” Wilson said. Why, he added, would they not support a new, concrete way to compensate owners for their investment? The beauty of the spreadsheet, which was created with the help of at least four veterinary students, is that the costs are fixed, which would offer a way to control liability growth, whereas non-economic damages can spiral to the $30-$40,000 range quickly.

In essence, offering increased economic damages is a compromise that veterinarians can make when state legislatures consider allowing non-economic damages, Wilson said. He referred to Tennessee and Illinois, two states that currently allow non-economic damages. Illinois does not cap the awards, he said.

“Veterinary staff will be able to use this spreadsheet to prepare prospective owners for the lifetime costs associated with the pet they envision for themselves and their families,” he said.