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Like the zoonotic and public health issues that cross human and veterinary borderlines, legal issues know no occupational boundaries. In an ever-litigious society, veterinarians and physicians face similar challenges.

Since 1988, the AVMA PLIT has paid more than $40 million in claims and costs, with slightly less than 10 percent of this going toward human injury claims. Between 1987 and 1996, the PLIT paid more than $472,000 for injuries inflicted by the client's own cat or dog. As part of the recent Virginia-Maryland symposium on the interrelationship of human and animal health, Dr. Jeannie Perron, a veterinarian attorney with Covington and Burling in Washington, DC, gave an informative talk about liability issues that affect veterinarians and physicians. Her practice emphasis includes food and drug issues and veterinary medicine.

"Unlike the human medical profession, I think our profession hasn't paid enough attention to this issue," she said. "I find that when I talk [to veterinarians] about liability issues, they're hearing a lot of this for the first time."

Dr. Jeannie Peron
Dr. Jeannie Peron

A large portion of Dr. Perron's talk concerned the kind of veterinary negligence or malpractice claims that result in injury to humans. For instance, Dr. Perron cited a case in which a client presented a stray cat for vaccination and sued the veterinarian for $2.25 million for bite wounds sustained when the client grabbed the cat in the examination room (the case was later dismissed, but generated its share of attorney fees). She reminded the audience that veterinarians have duties to clients, animals, and third parties, and she gave several examples of liability issues surrounding animal restraint.

Acknowledging they are not a cure-all to ward off liability claims, Dr. Perron promoted the use of client consent forms. But above all, she suggested being cognizant of one's actions. "If you're more aware of the kinds of things that commonly result in claims, a lot of them can be prevented."

Addressing liability involving public health, she told the story of a college student who sued physicians for failure to warn of risks associated with rabies postexposure treatment administered after the student was bitten by a stray dog. This underscores the need for veterinarians and human physicians to share information about their knowledge of diseases common to both.

Dr. Perron closed her talk by addressing the social stigma of being on the receiving end of a lawsuit. "Being sued doesn't mean you're guilty or a bad practitioner, but it's a terrible position to be put in. Anything you can do to avoid it, I'd recommend that you do."