Friday, February 8, 2013
Why Veterinarians Should Not be Immune from Responsibility
The veterinary immunity bill passed out of committee in the Washington State Senate as well as the House, and is up for debate and discussion among those lawmakers who will be voting on it next. In the WA house it is HB 1186, where it was placed on 2nd reading Feb 7th, and in the senate it is SB 5102, where it passed the 3rd reading with unanimous yes votes. Links to the pages for these bills are at the bottom of this post.
This bill would hold veterinarians immune from all civil and criminal liability for "good-faith" reporting of animal cruelty in the course of their practice. It ignores the fact that someone can "in good faith" still be negligent or commit malpractice, and leaves owners with no recourse in these situations.
The WA legislative website is trialing a new option to allow people to leave comments directly on the bill's page. Look for the "comment on this bill" link at the top of the page.
You should also contact the bill's sponsors and your representatives and let them know that animal owners need to be able to take appropriate measures if veterinarians knowingly, maliciously or negligently make false reports of animal abuse; or make a diagnosis of abuse so careless and wrong that it would be equivalent to medical malpractice.
Washington laws about false and malicious reporting, slander, etc. already require that such actions be negligent, malicious, knowingly false, etc. in order to successfully pursue action against the person. We believe there are already adequate protections in place to protect veterinarians or anyone else who makes a good-faith report of animal cruelty with legitimate reason to believe cruelty is taking place, even if the accused is not convicted of cruelty.
If it becomes commonplace for people to be unfairly prosecuted for animal cruelty when they take an animal to the vet, this will only discourage people from seeking veterinary treatment for their animals.
We know of several cases in which veterinarians reported people for animal cruelty for not purchasing a product or service they were trying to sell, or for wanting to wait or get a second opinion instead of immediately euthanizing an animal or doing an invasive and unnecessary procedure the vet recommended.
Here is one example: http://bluedogstate.blogspot.com/2012/07/cat-killer-vet-drops-dime.html
The family adopted an FIV-positive cat. When veterinarian Holly Cheever recommended euthanizing it, they decided that since the cat did not seem to be suffering they would like to try to keep it comfortable at home a little longer. They might have sought a second opinion, but the veterinarian immediately called authorities who seized the cat and brought it back to Cheevers, who euthanized it that same day (removing the owners' right to get a second opinion, and the evidence they needed to defend themselves) and insisted that they (including a family member who did not even live with the cat, but helped transport it to the vet) be charged with animal cruelty for their refusal to immediately euthanize the cat based on her recommendation.
Several of our team have personally experienced veterinarians prescribing medications or procedures contraindicated for the condition or species of animal they were treating, making severe misdiagnoses, or doing things like prescribing blacklisted medications (unsafe for use in meat animals) for livestock that were being raised for human consumption.
Animal owners should not be prosecuted because they refused the recommended treatment or went for a second opinion when the vet made a mistake like that.
No type of malpractice should be immune from consequences. If a veterinarian makes a significantly negligent diagnosis of animal cruelty, the owner should have recourse to pursue appropriate civil or criminal remedies. A veterinarian who has a pattern of reporting people in retaliation for refusing something the veterinarian was trying to sell, or for seeking a second opinion from another vet, should be disciplined. Veterinarians should have no more freedom than anyone else to make an allegation of animal cruelty without good reason to believe cruelty is actually taking place.
In fact, veterinarians should know even better than the general public how to evaluate animals' health, and so should not be excused when they make a significantly stupid diagnosis that could rise to the level of malpractice. If they do not know how to evaluate and diagnose a species, they should refer the case to a vet who can instead of making a wild, uninformed guess that could lead to someone's conviction for a crime they did not commit.
A few potential examples of this sort of thing:
* Reporting an owner for starving an animal, in the absence of reason to believe they were withholding food and without considering or checking for any medical conditions that could be causing the animal to lose weight.
* Diagnosing neglect or abuse in a healthy animal because the vet did not know how to properly evaluate the species and were diagnosing a type of animal they did not normally treat or examine. For instance, using a horse-specific body scoring system to score a dairy cow and declaring it to be starving because it had normal bone structure visibility for a dairy cow but did not fit the normal ranges for the horse scoring system, misidentifying a healthy alpaca as a severely underweight llama, or diagnosing a common and harmless anomaly normal for a given type of animal as being caused by neglect or abuse.
* Reporting an owner for animal cruelty because they refused to do immediate exploratory surgery on a dog that had a routine issue normally handled far less invasively. Since the owners were visiting family in another town and this wasn't their regular vet, they decided to instead immediately take the dog home to their regular vet for a second opinion. If the dog did need surgery, they would rather have their regular vet that they knew and trusted perform it. The first vet (who had never seen them before) tried to talk them out of this, saying that they were just trying to "save money" and that seeing another vet "wouldn't help."
Their normal vet treated it in the standard way, and the issue resolved just fine without surgery.
In making a report of animal cruelty on these clients, the vet reportedly stated that people should not be allowed to own any animals at all if they could not afford or were not willing to do any treatment recommended by this vet. Again, this was a routine issue very common to the breed, and exploratory surgery as a first resort would have been an inappropriate and unnecessarily dangerous and invasive treatment option. The owners didn't just refuse treatment and let the dog suffer; they were essentially reported for seeking a second opinion.
We love our veterinarians, and know that many are extremely competent and would not lightly or inappropriately report people for animal abuse. But veterinarians, just like anyone else, are not infallible, and there are situations where negligence or malpractice happen, or even where veterinarians commit crimes.
Do you have any stories of veterinarians making significantly negligent errors in diagnosis or treatment, or making clearly inappropriate reports of animal cruelty? We'd like to hear them, and we think our lawmakers should hear them too.
It is important to realize that these are not just situations where a person is making a report that is then going to be checked out and verified by experts--the vet IS the expert, and in multiple cases people have been convicted of cruelty based on a vet's word, when the veterinarian was not knowledgeable about the species and testified in court that something actually normal for a healthy animal of that type was proof of neglect or abuse.
Again, you can comment both by contacting your own representatives, the bill's sponsors and the committee members individually, by calling the legslative hotline, and by leaving a comment on the bill's homepage (links below).
We tried using the widget for leaving a comment on the bill's homepage, but kept getting an error message. Please let us know if you get it to work.
If you call the hotline or use the "contact" widget on the legislative hotline for individual legislators, they will request your home address to verify what district you are in and who your representatives are, but you can request that your message be sent to the bill's sponsors and the committee members working on it as well. You can tell the operator whether you oppose or support the bill, and they will also write down your comments to forward to the lawmakers.
On the actual homepage for each representative, you can generally email them directly without going through the legislative website widget.
Legislative Toll-free Hotline:
Here is the link to HB 1186: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1186&year=2013
And here is the page for SB 5102: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5102&year=2013
(If you are not from Washington, check to see if your own state is trying to pass or already has similar legislation, and contact your own legislators. Many states have or are trying to pass these types of laws.)