Risky business: 6 lawsuits waiting to happen

Think you're immune to lawsuits because you don't own the practice? Think again. Protect your hospital—and yourself—from the legal pitfalls in your path with this advice from savvy doctors and lawyers.
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Nov 01, 2006

Have you ever slipped on a puddle you just didn't see? Was it hidden, or were you just not looking? If you're not paying enough attention, you could miss the warning signs and take a nasty spill right into a lawsuit. Take a look at these common clinic catastrophes and solutions from experts to keep your practice on solid legal footing.

Risky situation No. 1:

Mrs. Smith visits with her Labrador retriever puppy, Sam, a ravenous little fellow who has a perpetual case of the munchies. Mrs. Smith is distraught that Sam's bowels have turned bloody and he has no energy. You suspect poor Sam has hookworms but you're reluctant to tell Mrs. Smith that her best pal may have given her more than his undying love. Would you and the clinic be liable if you didn't educate her on how to protect against zoonoses?


Can they sue you?
Your liability: "You must discuss the risks a client could face from any disease their pet has or is likely to get," says Karl Salzsieder, DVM, JD, an attorney and consultant with Salzsieder Consulting and Legal Services in Kelso, Wash. If you don't educate clients you could face claims of professional negligence or malpractice, agrees Sarah Babcock, DVM, JD, an attorney and member of Animal and Veterinary Legal Services PLLC.

What you can do: You need to clearly explain diseases clients can contract from their pets, Dr. Salzsieder says. He recommends preparing handouts for clients that offer preventive information, including statistics and risks, and that list your sources for the information you provide. Next step: Update the medical record. List the specific handouts you gave clients (or put a copy in the file), and note the date when you provided the materials.

Risky situation No. 2:

Mr. Jones's old Tom, Benny, has done it again. This ferocious feline is hell bent on using up all nine of his lives catting around the neighborhood and tangling with the locals. This time, he's really done a nice job of it too. He needs stitches and antibiotics. But Mr. Jones has become somewhat laid back about Benny's regular war wounds. Would you be liable if you didn't educate Mr. Jones about Benny's risks both if he receives treatment and if he doesn't?

Your liability: "The answer is yes—depending on the level of risk," Dr. Salzsieder says. "In other words, most court cases have said if the risk is common, you need to warn clients. But if the chances are extremely remote, then no." For example, Dr. Salzsieder recalls an Oregon case that centered on a horse that experienced an allergic reaction to penicillin. Research showed that one in 25,000 cases had a chance of allergic reaction. So the risk wasn't common enough to require notice.

What you can do: The veterinarian needs to obtain informed consent or refusal, says Dr. Babcock. "Providing proper informed consent is the best way to avoid a claim of malpractice," she says. "The doctor achieves informed consent through a conversation with the client or with a shared decision-making process. Veterinarians have a legal and ethical duty to obtain proper informed consent or refusal."

During these discussions, you'll assist as the doctor discusses the benefits and risks and any facts or considerations that help clients make educated decisions about their pets' health care. Dr. Babcock recommends using the DR TAP approach when you talk to clients. With this strategy, you include these elements in each conversation:

  • Diagnosis
  • Risks and benefits
  • Treatment options
  • Alternatives
  • Prognosis

It's also a good idea to provide an estimate for each option you offer.