Translate This Blog

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sue For Emotion?

It happens from time to time that people will threaten to sue for one problem or another.  Here in the US, as well as in many parts of the Western world, there are people that are ready to jump into the legal system to solve their problems.  Often, this is because of money rather than a true need for justice.  When human medical malpractice settlements and judgements can easily be in the millions of dollars, it's easy to see why some people would be tempted.  But it is quite different in veterinary malpractice claims. 

Pets are considered a special kind of property by the legal system.  Due to this status, a pet owner can only sue for the actual value of the "property" and any medical costs incurred.  For a breeding animal this dollar figure can be in the thousands of dollars due to lost potential revenue.  For a stray it may be less than $100.  Currently people cannot sue for emotional damages due to the loss of the pet, similar to how they cannot sue for emotional damages due to the loss of a car or television.  But this attitude may be changing.

Over the last century the status of pets has changed.  We have allowed them into our homes, families, and beds, and now consider them a part of our extended family.  We have closer bonds to them in ways that were very uncommon 100 years ago.  Our emotional ties have grown as our societies have moved from rural to urban and we have brought our pets in closer contact to our daily lives.  These stronger bonds mean that we often feel the loss even more acutely.  The loss of a pet can generate genuine emotional distress.

And vets are encouraging this.  We celebrate that human-pet bond, calling pets "furry children" and the owners "parents".  In my own practice we delierately call our patients "pets" rather than "animals" to help enhance and recognize this bond.  As medical professionals, we want our clients to care about their pets as much as they do about their children, and get upset when the people don't seem to care as much as we think they should.  Many vets and pet stores sell clothing and other things for pets that make them seem like little people.

As vets we have very low malpractice insurance costs.  I have to pay less than $300 per year to get a $1 million coverage policy.  The same level of insurance for a human physician can be anywhere from $20-40,000 per year.  Someone in a higher risk field such as obstetrics may have to pay $100,000 to get adequate coverage.  Truthfully this has become a crisis in human medicine.  There are more and more doctors getting out of higher-risk fields and specialties due to the outrageous insurance costs.  Doctors are also leaving certain parts of the countries where the courts have historically allowed extremely high settlements.  And a large part of the reason why human health care is so expensive is due to the multi-million dollar settlements and the insurance necessary to cover the doctors.

Now here is the dilemma.  As veterinarians we see what has happened in the human field, and don't want that to happen to us. We pay literally 1/100th of the insurance costs of human doctors, and we don't have to deal with outrageous lawsuits.  Yet we want people to have strong emotional ties with their pets and strongly promote these bonds.  In essence we want to have our cake and eat it to.  We want people to be emotionally attached to their pets but don't want them to be able to sue for damage to this bond. It is also hard for the pet owners, because if we have to start paying higher malpractice insurance costs, these costs will be passed on to the consumer, meaning higher charges on veterinary services.  It also means that we are going to need to be running more diagnostic tests to cover ourselves much like human physicians have to do.

And that brings me to last month's survey.  I asked if pet owners should be able to sue for pain and suffering even if it increased the costs of medical care.  And it seems like people aren't really sure. There was an even split for and against the idea, with 27% each.  And 44% simply didn't know.  As you can see this is a complicated issue.  If people can sue for emotional suffering for themselves or their pets, medical costs will rise. Yet the courts recognize awards for similar suffering in humans, and we are encouraging such bonds and ties with pets.

There are already movements in certain districts in the US to allow pain and suffering awards, though so far only up to a few thousand dollars.  As pets become more integral in our lives, we will likely see this legal trend continue.  And if it does, expect to pay more at your vet.