October 21, 2008
Pet value continues to test veterinary medicine
Court ruling, roundtable talks feature latest on economic worth
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service
As a Washington appeals court ruling issued last month upholds strict
economic parameters regarding pet worth, the Colorado Veterinary
Medical Association (CVMA) wants to allow owners to reap more than an
animal’s fair market value in cases of malpractice or wrongful death.
Both events represent the latest in a growing movement spearheaded by
owners to increase the value of pets via legal status, classification
and economic worth through the nation’s courts and state legislatures.
At the same time, organized veterinary medicine attempts to beat back
any change that might open the door to damages on par with those
plaguing human medicine.
It’s a balance that veterinarians can’t have both ways, critics say. On
one hand, the profession promotes the human-animal bond and benefits
from owners’ increased willingness to pay for higher medical costs to
maintain the health of their animals. Yet when it comes to civil
remedies, pets continue to be classified as chattel, with no more
emotional value than a chair — a stance upheld since 1995 by state
supreme and appellate court rulings in 24 states. Anything more would
blur the distinction between humans and animals, flood court dockets
with cases against DVMs and ultimately raise the price of veterinary
medical care, the profession’s leaders contend.
That stance is echoed in an amicus curiae brief filed in the Washington
case by the Animal Health Institute, American Kennel Club and Pet
Industry Joint Advisory Council. In the lawsuit, appellant Arlene
Sherman alleged that the trial court erred by dismissing her claim that
the state’s medical malpractice statute should be applied to Dr.
Jennifer Kissinger and Broadway Veterinary Hospital in relationship to
the death of her dog. The case, originally filed in September 2006,
sought negligent infliction of emotional distress, which was dismissed.
Whether or not the case will be appealed to the Washington Supreme
Court was unknown at press time.
The appeals court made the correct decision, amicus brief authors say.
Pets are not persons, spouses, parents or children, and the negative
impact of treating them as such would “ripple throughout Washington
society,” triggering everything from increased pet abandonment and
euthanasia to rising automobile insurance claims, the brief contends.
Those predictions might have a foundation, but according to CVMA’s
Ralph Johnson, executive director, a middle ground might be the best
answer to slow a seemingly endless stream of legislative and legal
challenges. During the past five legislative sessions, Colorado
lawmakers have turned down two bills seeking to open the door to
non-economic damages in cases involving animals. How long anti-change
proponents can fend them off is anyone’s guess. The answer, Johnson
says, could be finding a way to expand legal remedies to owners without
opening the door to non-economic damages that include intangible harms
such as loss of consortium and emotional distress.
According to Washington court documents, owner Sherman was offered less
than $200 as a replacement cost for her Poodle, which defendants argued
was worth no more based on the animal’s assumed medical condition, a
blood clotting disorder suspected of factoring in its death. That kind
of settlement insults and infuriates owners, critics contend. But what
if additional economic remedies could be levied for objective areas
such as training and pedigree as well as medical care?
On Nov. 8, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Adrian
Hochstadt, JD, CAE, and private consultant James F. Wilson, DVM, JD,
plan to host a roundtable discussion on the topic at the CVMA Fall
Leadership Conference. The result could be legislation proposed by CVMA
for the 2010 state session.
“This is where we say, ‘We recognized that your pet needs to be thought
of differently than a desk or a door,’” Johnson says. “We want to
understand the issues, and do our homework before anything comes of
this. But as for now, the public is saying we need to make a change on
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