Human error is a reality – inside and outside of veterinary medicine. No one is perfect, and mistakes sometimes happen. Veterinary scenarios might include:
Misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis
Mistakes or miscommunications around pet prescriptions, especially buying pet medications somewhere other than a veterinary hospital
Actual errors during a treatment procedure or surgery
If you go looking, you will find egregious cases of malpractice in veterinary medicine. However, I believe most errors are not negligence or malpractice.
You might be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say.”
It isn’t. Earlier this summer, a veterinary technician accidentally overdosed my Border Collie about 70% with a chemo drug. (My dog was okay.)
To Tell or Not to Tell
Chris Green, JD, director of legal affairs, Animal Legal Defense Fund, checked with veterinary defense lawyers and rustled through state statutes for me. He found no rules that require veterinarians to report mistakes to state licensing boards, malpractice insurers, or clients.
For comparison, there are reporting rules in human medicine. Studies of human hospitals show that being upfront about mistakes actually lowers the chances of a lawsuit.
Currently, AVMA PLIT (a trust that sponsors a malpractice program) supports the disclosure of medical errors by veterinarians, after immediately checking with their insurer for advice on what to say and do.
Dr. Linda J. Ellis, a trust representative with PLIT, adds, “It’s important that veterinarians do not speculate – sometimes there is a bad outcome, and no mistake was made, or it’s unknown if a mistake is made.”
Green tells me this stance on reporting mistakes to clients is an about-face. “For a long time veterinary liability insurance companies said, ‘Don’t ever admit anything,’” he says.
After the Error
No one can turn back the clock, so the issue for pet owners is what happens after the mistake. The next steps really depend on if the mistake caused clear injury to the pet and if that injury can be fixed.
In addition to admitting the error, some veterinarians opt to waive fees for the event that led to the mistake and to cover the costs of whatever additional care is required.
Green tells me of a case in Boston, where a dog was overdosed by a factor of 10, leading to blindness. The veterinarian admitted the error – back when that went against common wisdom. He fired the veterinary technician who made the mistake, and he paid for an eye specialist. “No plaintiff’s lawyers I knew in the animal law scene would take that case,” Green says. “Why would anyone want to go after that and penalize the one person who finally does everything right?”
So, it really depends on how you find out about the mistake and what the veterinarian does to “make up for” the error.
Licensing and Legal Realities
If you feel strongly enough about an error, you can report the event to your state’s veterinary licensing board. Green begins measuring mistake levels with whether the pet survived, and then he moves into questions about if the injury is irreversible. In severe cases, Green does suggest making a report so that trends – where a veterinarian makes the same mistake more than once – get noted.
Keep in mind, however, that state licensing boards almost never take meaningful action. Green tells me about a case of negligence and abuse that would make you truly sick. That veterinarian’s license was suspended for one month. That’s it.
While criminal law relating to animals has begun taking injury to animals seriously, civil law – where pets are considered property only – is still mired in 19th century ideas. Even if the worst happens, you’re likely only entitled to “replacement value” of your pet (often no more than $500).
Some people spend upwards of $250,000 in legal fees to get a civil judgment against a veterinarian. In one California case, the family got a $39,000 judgment. So, they not only lost their pet but also about $211,000 as well. To them, Green says, it was worth it – both for personal satisfaction and to get the decision into case law.
Most people choose not to spend the time, money, and energy.
Green, Christopher, “The Future of Veterinary Malpractice Liability in the Care of Companion Animals,” Animal Law, Vol. 10, and an update published in 2013