Pet value continues to test veterinary medicine

Court ruling, roundtable talks feature latest on economic worth

October 21, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

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 this.”

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