How emotion-based-non-economic damages can hurt you and your pet

You care about your pet and, if, you’re like most Americans, you probably consider your pet to be a family member. Your pet comforts you, lifts your spirits and makes your life more enjoyable. When you’ve had a bad day, that wagging tail or soft purr quickly makes you forget your troubles. Pets simply make our lives better. 

Veterinarians know the important role animals play in our lives, and we actually take a formal oath to protect those animals and keep them healthy. We’re your “other family doctor,” protecting the health of your four-legged companions. Caring for animals is our lifelong passion, dedication and calling. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Veterinarians also understand all too well the heartbreaking sadness that occurs when a pet dies, particularly if the death is sudden or unexpected. It tears us up inside, and we mourn right along with your family. So when it seems possible that your pet’s death was brought about by someone else, we understand that you can feel anger and a need for justice; these are normal feelings associated with loss, as are the strong feelings that other pets and pet owners should be spared a similar heart-wrenching experience. No reasonable, caring human being would wish for anything other than healthy, happy lives for our pets. 

But when pet owners seek emotion-based damages, also known as non-economic damages, as compensation for pain and suffering, this sets up a domino effect of unintended and undesirable consequences that will actually hurt pets in the long run. Arguments for noneconomic damages may seem to have some merit and be “pro-animal” at first glance. But they actually aren’t. Here’s why.

What’s currently allowed to compensate pet owners

Our current legal system allows for the recovery of the tangible, economic value of a pet and other actual expenses. This means that you can recover the market value of the animal along with some other out-of-pocket costs such as expenses for special training or medical care caused by someone else’s conduct or error.  Except for punitive damages awarded in cases of intentional, malicious injury, the system does not currently allow animal owners to recover emotion-based or non-economic damages for their pain and suffering associated with the negligent death of a pet. The legal system, it should be noted, onlyallows non-economic damages for a person’s loss of a close family member like a spouse or child, and usually not a domestic partner, a best friend or a more distant  family member such as an uncle or grandparent. 

Although pets are technically considered “property” under the law, they aren’t property in the same sense as chairs, sofas and tables are property. Animals are afforded unique protection by the law to guard them against abuse and neglect. You won’t be brought up on criminal charges for kicking your  table, but you can be if you do the same to your pet. And rightly so. Animal abuse is wrong, and there are and should be protections in place to keep animals from being abused, neglected or intentionally and maliciously injured. And when a pet is intentionally injured, punitive damages can be recovered under the law – and we agree that they should be. 

But there’s a difference between a person maliciously injuring an animal and a veterinarian failing in an honest attempt to provide medical care. If we allow pet owners to recover emotion-based/non-economic damages from veterinarians who are trying to help their pets, we unintentionally help raise costs, making it more difficult for  people to afford to pay for veterinary care.

Emotion-based damages hurt medical care

If non-economic damages are allowed to compensate owners for pain and suffering associated with the loss of a pet companion, we can expect that there will be more lawsuits filed in pursuit of these damages But as more cases are filed, insurance companies will increase their rates for veterinary malpractice insurance – to adjust for the increased risk of providing the coverage. Higher insurance rates will translate to higher costs for running a veterinary practice, and ultimately those costs will be passed along to consumers. In other words, the cost of veterinary visits and care will rise. 

It’s easy to think that veterinarians must make a lot of money and thus would be able to absorb these extra costs without passing them along to patients. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. The average salary for a 2013 veterinary school graduate is $67,136 and the average student debt carried by a veterinarian is $146,221. Using the current interest rate of 5.41% and the average loan term of 30 years, that means the average veterinarian is paying about $800 per month just to pay down their student loans. For many, that’s more than a mortgage payment. The reality is that many veterinary clinics are struggling to keep their doors open; they simply can’t absorb the cost of higher insurance premiums and are forced to pass them on through higher prices. 

How much would the cost of veterinary care increase if the legal system were to allow non-economic damages for the loss of a pet? There’s no way to know for sure. But what is certain is that costs would rise. And as money becomes a bigger concern for pet owners, many pets won’t get the routine, preventive care they need to keep them healthy. We’ve already seen that happen during the recent recession, when money became tighter for most Americans. And when pets don’t get good preventive care, they’re at higher risk of falling victim to diseases and other health problems. In other words, they’re more likely to suffer. 

Not convinced? Just take a look at the human health system in the United States. As a result of skyrocketing and unaffordable malpractice insurance rates, physicians have left high-risk specialties and begun to migrate out of some geographic areas where it’s hard to make a profit. As a result, there are people going without much-needed medical care, and patients are losing their longtime physicians because they have moved to areas that are more practice-friendly and less encumbered by malpractice insurance rates that have gone through the roof. And because of the ever-present fear of lawsuits, physicians are practicing “defensive medicine,” ordering additional (and possibly unnecessary) tests or procedures to make sure they’ve done everything possible, instead of relying on their education and medical skills to determine a reasonable and more streamlined diagnostic approach.

A similar situation for a pet would be a veterinarian performing full bloodwork, X-rays, ultrasound, fecal culture and an exploratory surgery on a dog that has vomited twice but is otherwise healthy when examined. Would most people be able to afford that? Is that really fair to both the pet and the pet owner? Probably not. We have a medical malpractice liability crisis in our country, and tort reform remains a major concern for many elected officials at both the federal and state level. 

What does the AVMA propose?

You may ask, if we don’t increase their civil liability, how do we keep negligent veterinarians from harming animals. Veterinarians, like most professionals, can be disciplined, including losing their license, if they are found by their state’s oversight agency to be incompetent or have violated the standards of professional conduct. While very few veterinarians engage in this type of misconduct, the AVMA supports strong enforcement and funding for these critical agencies, which exist to protect the public from individuals who should not be allowed to practice.  

In addition, intentional injuries to animals should be punished to the full extent of the law, regardless of the profession or motivation of the person found guilty, and that includes the possibility of criminal prosecution as well as civil punitive damages awarded as punishment. 

As veterinarians, we’ve taken an oath to protect your pet’s health. That is our passion and our commitment.   We want what’s best for your pet, and it’s not emotion-based/non-economic damages.