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July 12th, 2006 Josh Silverman | News Stories
 

Legal Beagles

Veterinarians howl over the rise in local animal lawsuits.

     
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IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
In the latest big-bucks lawsuit over a pet's death, Portlander Janet Dumas is seeking $1.4 million from her neighbor because she says his two dogs killed her cat Clyde.

Dumas' lawsuit filed last week in Multnomah County Circuit Court comes less than two months after a Clackamas County jury awarded a man $56,400 from his neighbor for intentionally running over his dog.

Laura Ireland Moore, a lawyer and executive director of the Portland-based National Center for Animal Law, says both lawsuits add to a body of anecdotal evidence that more pet owners are seeking legal recognition of the relationship with their pets. Moore says they're seeking money in lawsuits for "loss of companionship" or the owner's "pain and suffering," not just the pet's actual monetary value.

One group isn't cheering this trend—veterinarians.

Glenn Kolb, executive director of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, says such a legal shift could raise veterinarians' malpractice insurance costs if they become liable for a human owner's pain and suffering.

The American Veterinary Medical Assocation offers vets coverage of small animals at $182 per year. That covers up to $100,000 per claim.

Kolb also warns that a legal change would ultimately increase the expense of owning pets because vets might resort to "defensive" medicine—such as ordering excessive or unnecessary diagnostic tests—to safeguard against exposure to large malpractice judgments.

"It's well documented what medical malpractice has done to human healthcare and costs and liability," says Ron Morgan, executive director of DoveLewis Animal Hospital in Northwest Portland. "[Veterinarians] don't have an infrastructure that would allow us to spread those costs."

Kolb believes veterinarians should be liable for measurable economic damages such as a pet's cost or its utility (for instance, a guide dog for the blind), but that "you can't put a price tag on an owner's pain and suffering." He posed the following analogy: "Even if my very best friend, who grew up with me and who was at my wedding, was killed in front of me, I couldn't sue for loss of companionship."

Under longstanding legal tradition, pets are considered property. And that's made it hard for owners to seek compensation beyond the animal's value, especially for damages due to veterinary negligence. Additionally, judges have prohibited juries from considering "loss of companionship" claims, which are traditionally reserved for the death of spouses.

Morgan says a person's medical insurance in human healthcare acts as a buffer when medical costs increase. But very few owners take out pet insurance, meaning any increase in malpractice premiums immediately gets passed to the consumer's pocketbook. He adds that most veterinarian clinics are small and therefore less able to absorb vastly increased malpractice insurance premiums.

But the animal law center's Moore says those fears are misplaced.

She cites a 2004 study by lawyer Christopher Green, author of The Future of Veterinary Malpractice Liability in the Care of Companion Animals. The study concluded that even if veterinary liability insurance skyrocketed by 100 times its current level, the annual cost of owning a pet would increase by all of $11.50. Moore also notes that large awards typically involve intentional harm, which malpractice insurance does not cover.

So what's the future hold for justice, doggie-style, in Portland, a city dotted with "doggy daycare" centers, pet stores and

dog parks?

In the 2001 Legislature, Sen. Peter Courtney (D-Salem) sponsored a bill that would have allowed up to $250,000 in recovery for companion animal loss. The bill died. But the measure's driving force, animal-rights lawyer Scott Beckstead, says each lawsuit like Dumas' adds pressure on the Legislature to act, if only to place a cap on such awards.

"It's only a matter of time before someone drafts another such bill," Beckstead says, hinting that he just might be that someone.

 
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