Human-animal bond steps up legal exposure
Owners aim for more in malpractice, wrongful death cases; guardianship movement steamrolls ahead
As New Jersey leaders temporarily oust an animal cruelty bill dubbing loss of companionship and emotional distress as triggers for legal retort, a push to convert animal "owners" to "guardians" strikes legislatures nationwide.
At face value, the two issues seemingly aren't connected. Yet each representsa vast animal welfare movement changing the way the public views its pets.Nowadays pets often aren't the animals kept in the backyard. They're familymembers, eating from tables and sleeping in beds.
While the veterinary profession has long touted the merits of the human-animalbond, efforts to up the value and status of pets leaves practitioners facedwith increased legal risk every time a client walks through their frontdoor.
Sweeping legal and legislative allowances for more than an animal's fairmarket value in cases of wrongful death or malpractice promise to open thefloodgates, exposing the profession to costly litigation and heightenedcritique. Guardianship terminology is another logical step toward allowingcivil action to be taken on a pet's behalf, veterinary leaders claim.
(For benchmarks in the animal status movement, see DVM Newsmagazine'sApril cover story "Profession grapples with evolving pet status"and its subsequent chart, page 42.)
"There's just a prevailing attitude that the legal status of petswill change; it's not how, but when," says Rick Alampi, New JerseyVeterinary Medical Association (NJVME) executive director. "The conceptof veterinarians positioning themselves as integral to the human-animalbond while claiming immunity from malpractice awards is a pipe dream. Youcan't have it both ways."
Hit from all sides
While the profession is exposed to a bombardment of malpractice and wrongfuldeath claims typically turned away by courts upholding property status quos,practitioners now are often responsible for reporting animal abuse, whichcarries serious consequences.
Sitting on Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's desk is a bill passed by bothlegislative houses allowing damages brought about by aggravated animal cruelty.If the governor signs the measure, veterinarians could be fined up to $1,000for failing to report such cases.
"It's a direct and dangerous link to veterinarians," says attorneyDr. Jim Wilson of Priority Veterinary Management Consultants in Yardley,Penn. "Every one of these cases is a step in the direction recognizingthat society values pets more than just property. There are incrementalgains that go with each one of these statutory changes.
"It's a good example of how different directions within the lawbring about this rationale that pets have higher than pure market value."
More than a word
Guardianship law brings with it a whole set of legal standards differentfrom property law, says Dr. Greg Dennis, a lawyer and head of the AmericanVeterinary Medical Law Association. While the public might view it as justa word change, Dennis disagrees.
"Words are very important in law, like the name of a disease isimportant in medicine," he says. "Guardianship says the animalis now a ward. That takes the option of simply putting an animal down dueto economic reasons away. Guardians have a legal obligation to foot theexpense of all veterinary care available."
Despite the veterinary profession's warnings, municipalities from Berkley,Calif., to Boulder, Colo., have enlisted change, implementing guardianshiplanguage into city ordinances.
In 2001, Rhode Island became the nation's first and only state to modifyits laws to include pet "guardian," ousting the old ownershipdefinitions. Since then, secondary legislation outlining new animal abuselaws related to abandonment, neglect and sexual abuse requiring guilty guardiansto register as sex offenders was narrowly defeated by legislators.
"These are all just steps in the ladder," Wilson says. "WhatI'm seeing are patterns that link emotional damages to the intentional inflictionof emotional distress."