Malpractice litigation is uncommon in veterinary medicine. Since the legal system typically viewed pets as property, damages could not exceed replacement cost if a veterinarian hurt or killed animals during treatment. Pet owners could sue for the negligent vet’s fee. However, punitive damages were only available in cases of intentional or malicious injury.
Today, state courts are beginning to treat veterinarian lawsuits as physician malpractice. In other words, they evaluate non-economic factors, such as owner pain and suffering, when determining legal remedies. With large judgments possible, pet parents are seeking legal remedies more frequently. In response, veterinarians are buying professional liability insurance to shield their assets against angry patients.
Although veterinary malpractice cases remain less common than human cases, they are becoming larger and more frequent. Five- and six-figure cases are becoming more common. Plus, as people increasingly view their pets as family members, they grieve more when they pass away. Pet owners are also spending more on their animals. In fact, the U.S. pet industry had almost $100 billion in sales in 2020. Result: More malpractice litigation will likely affect your business in the near future. Did you expect this when you first entered the business?
Consider the Risks
Caring for animals brings malpractice risks due to their complex anatomy and disease processes. Given this complexity, it’s surprising veterinarians don’t make more errors than they already do. Here are some typical mistakes:
- Not promptly and correctly diagnosing a pet’s illness, thereby violating current care standards
- Applying the wrong treatment or surgery or performing it incorrectly
- Injuring a pet being treated in your office— even if a staff member committed the error, not you
- Permitting an animal to escape your premises, which results in its injury or death
- Taking care of an animal species without sufficient experience
- Not making a referral to a specialist veterinarian for difficult cases
In many cases, these and other mistakes don’t lead to litigation. In others, they may create significant financial losses for pet owners and/or emotional suffering. When either of those outcomes occurs, pet owners may take you to court. Here are some of claims they may file against you:
- Producing emotional pain and/or suffering
- Not fulfilling a bailee’s duty (safeguarding a pet while it’s under the veterinarian’s care)
- Violating a contract with a pet owner
- Doing business in a deceptive or fraudulent manner
Sometimes a malpractice case involves multiple grievances, which can increase its complexity and attorney fees and potential judgments.
In short, the risks of being a veterinarian are substantial. They follow you throughout your entire workday and can produce costly malpractice claims if you make a mistake.
What is Veterinary Malpractice?
Veterinary malpractice happens when a vet harms an animal due to ineptitude, error in judgment or lack of care. However, it’s important to understand that an animal that fails to improve may not indicate malpractice. Clients wishing to win their malpractice lawsuit against a veterinarian must prove four things:
- Their pet was under the veterinarian’s formal care
- The vet violated the state veterinary board’s professional care standards
- The animal died, got hurt or its condition worsened because the vet didn’t provide appropriate care
- Due to the veterinarian’s care, the animal’s owner sustained a financial or emotional loss, also known as “damages”
The American Veterinary Medicine Association doesn’t provide statistics about the number of vets sued each year and how much claim settlement costs. But, based on informal evidence, it’s likely the industry’s claim expenses have increased considerably in recent years. Have you shielded your practice against them?
What Is Veterinary Professional Liability Insurance?
Professional liability insurance, also called malpractice insurance, reduces the risks of providing medical care to dogs, cats and other companion animals. It covers the costs of defending your business against professional negligence claims. Specifically, it provides funds to retain a lawyer and pay for financial judgments or settlements that emerge from a judicial process. Not only does this insurance type protect you against third-party claims, but it also pays your attorney to make nuisance litigation disappear.
How does it work? Put simply, it protects you when you make an error or forget to do something essential, which creates a financial loss for a pet owner. Based on your policy’s insuring agreement, the company will:
- Provide a qualified defense attorney at no charge.
- Assign a claims adjuster to keep your case on track.
- Cover your attorney fees.
- Pay for expert witnesses to buttress your legal argument.
- Handle court expenses.
- Refer you to arbitration, mediation or other forms of alternate dispute resolution.
The total cost to resolve your litigation might reach six figures or more. But, as long as you have professional liability insurance and your legal costs have exceeded your policy’s deductible (your cost-sharing amount), your insurer will foot the bill. However, your policy won’t pay under certain situations, which your policy’s exclusions spell out.
Common exclusions include:
- Cases involving a veterinarian’s fraudulent or criminal actions.
- Claims involving lawsuits settled before your policy’s start date or that are pending at that time.
- Litigation that benefits a member of a veterinarian’s family.
- Coverage of regulatory fines.
- Losses resulting from non-covered professional activities.
- Litigation included in a broader class-action lawsuit.
The Benefits of Veterinary Professional Liability Insurance
Why do veterinarians need this form of insurance? Because it:
- Decreases financial doubt– How? By replacing a large, unknown risk (the possibility of getting sued) with a smaller, known cost (a regular insurance premium). Most veterinarians understand that certainty is better than uncertainty when managing practice finances.
- Provides ready access to a qualified defense attorney– If you get sued, you’ll need legal advice fast. But finding a good lawyer can be challenging. With professional liability insurance, you’ll have a skilled attorney immediately available to defend you.
- Reduces worry and stress– Getting sued can be upsetting. It raises the possibility that you’ll have to pay a large financial settlement or judgment. If you lack monetary assets, you may have to liquidate assets or declare bankruptcy. Getting sued also casts doubt on your professional reputation. When you have insurance, your insurer-provided attorney will try to have the claim dismissed or settle it out of court, if possible. Minimizing the stress of being sued is a big reason for having malpractice insurance.
- Increases client trust– Your customers want a true veterinary professional to care for their animal. Being insured is an excellent way of proving you’re that person. It shows you will take responsibility for your mistakes and make them whole financially if your professional negligence harms their pet.
- Fills the gaps left by general liability insurance– Many veterinarians believe their general liability insurance or business owner’s policy (BOP) covers their professional errors. They only protect against third-party injuries and property damage and not mistakes you make while providing care. If you want coverage against client lawsuits, you’ll need to buy malpractice insurance.
What to Look for in a Professional Liability Insurer
Given the importance of protecting yourself against client litigation, it’s important you select an insurance company that will protect your interests. Features to look for include:
- Experience serving veterinarians like you.
- An excellent claims-paying track record.
- A strong reputation in the veterinary medicine field.
- Top ratings from insurance analysts, such as A.M. Best and Standard & Poor’s (S&P).
- Responsive customer service.
- Availability of an attorney hotline.
- Risk management educational content.
Once you’ve researched an insurance company, read the policy details. Two important points bear discussion: adequate limits and covered professional duties. Small-animal veterinarians should buy coverage of at least $1 million to $2 million per claim incident. If you care for high-value animals, you may need more protection. Equally crucial is whether a policy covers your actual veterinary duties. Check the activities in the policy to make sure they line up with your professional activities.
In short, veterinary medicine is getting more risky by the day. The mounting chance of getting sued means your business and personal assets are in danger. Do you want to safeguard those assets and decrease the stress of practicing veterinary medicine? Then consider buying comprehensive professional liability insurance from an insurance provider in which you believe.