The human-animal bond: A legal liability for veterinarians?

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As a society's values change, so do its laws. The bond between humans and animals continues to intensify, which has led to a trend to afford these valued creatures greater legal protections. Attorney Douglas C. Jack says this evolution in animal abuse and cruelty laws will have serious implications for the practice of veterinary medicine in the coming years.

The lecture was one in a series about the law and veterinary medicine offered July 15 during the AVMA Annual Convention in Nashville.

Jack, a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, explained that abuse laws in America and Canada currently recognize animals as property dependent on people for basic care. Criminal offenses against animals are categorized either as misdemeanors or as felonies, with felonies carrying stiffer penalties than misdemeanors. Animal abuse in most jurisdictions is classified as a misdemeanor, Jack pointed out.

But efforts are under way in a number of state legislatures and city councils to change this. Civil and criminal codes pertaining to animals "are evolving as we speak," Jack said, adding that some cities, such as Boulder, Colo., have amended their ordinances to redefine pet owners as "pet guardians" to codify the special relationship people share with their pets.

veterinarian and patient

Many states have attempted to toughen their animal abuse laws by imposing greater fines and longer imprisonment terms. Fifteen states, according to Jack, now characterize animal abuse and cruelty as felonies for persons found to have intentionally caused injury or death to an animal.

In addition, courts are recognizing that people can suffer emotional distress as a result of negligence or cruelty that causes the death of a pet, and are awarding higher damages. Tennessee and Maryland have placed caps on damages that can be recovered from the loss of a pet. But these capped awards can still be costly. For instance, a law pending in the Michigan legislature has a $250,000 limit.

Jack believes the writing is on the wall, however, and veterinarians will find themselves confronted with increased levels of exposure to liability. "I think we're on a course for increased liability for pets," he said.

Jack cited the growing consensus that animals are a "special" form of property as a cause of this shift in the legal culture. Indeed, numerous surveys show many pet owners think of their animals as children. Also, society is increasingly viewing animals as sentient beings capable of feeling pain that should, therefore, be treated humanely. And finally, the health care and law enforcement professions recognize the link between cruelty to animals and domestic violence and more heinous crimes.

As these laws evolve, so, too, will the role of veterinarians. "Your role in society has changed," Jack said, adding that he sees the new roles as expert witness, whistle-blower, investigator, teacher, and offender or co-conspirator.

Without a doubt, the public will continue to express outrage at incidents where animals are treated inhumanely. Prosecutors will more readily call on veterinarians to testify as expert witnesses in animal abuse trials. One of the problems, however, is the lack of objective guidelines for identifying qualifying injuries sustained as a result of abuse. Such standards were developed to aid in the recognition of battered children, Jack said, and the veterinary profession would benefit greatly from its own criteria.

Regarding the whistle-blower role, Jack expects that, as the link between animal and domestic violence becomes more prominent, states will start passing laws requiring veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse to child welfare services. Minnesota and West Virginia already have such laws on the books, he said.

Jack encouraged the AVMA and state veterinary medical associations to lobby for immunity from civil liability for erroneously reporting clients as possible abusers. Massachusetts already has such a law on the books exempting veterinarians from civil or criminal liability when reports are made in good faith.

Law enforcement officials may call on practitioners to assist investigations of animal abuse, again underscoring the need for the creation of objective abuse standards. Relatedly, practitioners must keep accurate, detailed, and legible patient records with no editorial comments, because the records will almost certainly be part of any investigation, Jack added.

Veterinarians, Jack said, may also be expected to educate clients who are failing to adequately look after basic needs of the animals they own.

Finally, veterinarians may find themselves under investigation for either their own conduct or for failing to report animal abuse. Each year there are numerous allegations of animal abuse in a clinical setting, Jack noted, and certain animal rights groups are increasingly scrutinizing veterinarians' methods. Also, failing to report cases of abuse could lead prosecutors to file criminal charges against veterinarians themselves.