Professional liability concerns a hot topic at HOD forum

Updated June 26, 2024

Veterinarians are among the most trusted professionals, second only to nurses, according to a recent Gallup Poll on the perceptions of honesty and ethical standards of occupations.
But as any veterinarian can attest, with that trust comes significant responsibility that can keep them up at night.

AVMA leaders discussed professional liability concerns and related issues (see story) June 20 during the AVMA House of Delegates’ (HOD) Veterinary Information Forum.

Forum participants were encouraged to share their questions or thoughts relative to professional liability insurance, including the program sponsored by the AVMA Professional Liability Insurance Trust (AVMA PLIT) or legal liability in the course of veterinary practice.

Tracey Gray-Walker, AVMA Trust CEO, addresses the AVMA House of Delegate’s Veterinary Information Forum
Tracey Gray-Walker, AVMA Trust CEO, addresses the AVMA House of Delegate’s Veterinary Information Forum on June 20. She says the AVMA Professional Liability Insurance Trust–sponsored program will aggressively defend insured members and claims cannot be settled without the insured member’s consent. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

Dr. Teresa Hershey, Minnesota delegate, said as the veterinary industry moves toward more fully leveraging team members and corporate consolidation continues, “the associate veterinarian is increasingly being put in a position where their liability risk increases and their influence on the practice decreases.”

Associate veterinarians frequently work with team members they don’t know, either because they’re asked to shift between corporate-owned clinics or work with a relief veterinarian, or the clinic is circulating through veterinary technicians, she said.

“In addition, the associate veterinarian is often not at the table when decisions are made in terms of which team members are allowed to do which tasks, the type of training they receive, and how much oversight is performed,” Dr. Hershey said, and they may not have any leverage when interacting with their employer.

On June 21, the HOD voted unanimously to refer the topic of professional liability to the AVMA Board of Directors to consider two actions. The first was to investigate the development of additional reputation management resources for members. The second was to collaborate with the AVMA PLIT to develop an omnichannel approach to educate members on programs and questions related to liability and similar issues.

Tracey Gray-Walker, AVMA Trust CEO, spoke at the VIF to give more information on the AVMA PLIT and its activities. She said that every claim is handled on a case-by-case basis. Also, that the legal standard of care is constantly changing and depends on many factors, varying by practice type and state. It is generally established by expert testimony.

She noted that among all claims made to the AVMA PLIT, slightly over 10%, regardless of species, pertained to spays and neuters. For companion animal claims alone, it rises to about 20%, represents about 50% of the top five small animal surgical claims. Other top claim drivers for small animal practitioners were dental procedures, adverse anesthetic events, drug reactions and errors, and C-sections.

For large animal and equine claims, the top drivers were prepurchase examinations, rectal tears, castrations, reproductive examinations and procedures, injections, and handling or restraint injuries.

The insurance provided through the AVMA PLIT-sponsored program will pay, according to the policy, damages an insured member is legally obligated to pay up to the policy limit, which varies based upon the member’s selection. Such damages include amounts awarded by a jury or a settlement. Defense attorney fees are paid by the insurance carrier and do not reduce limits of liability and the policy.

The AVMA PLIT-sponsored program will aggressively defend insured members, Gray-Walker said, and a claim cannot be settled without the insured’s consent.

Dr. Diana Thomé, Washington state delegate, said, “Mitigating liability requires a commitment to ongoing education, ethical decision-making, and proactive risk management strategies. Moreover, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate an open communication with our clients, fostering trust and transparency in every interaction. By engaging in honest dialogue and setting realistic expectations, we can mitigate misunderstandings and reduce the likelihood of disputes.”

The AVMA Trusts have put together resources for practitioners to better understand professional liability coverage in multiple contexts, including working with students and volunteers, reputation management and social media, and relief work.