Your Medical Career and financial stability flash before your eyes. A gut-wrenching feeling takes hold. This is it; you've
been hit with a malpractice lawsuit.
PHOTO BY MARK MCDONALD
Even if it's never happened to you, statistically speaking, you're worried it will. More than 77 percent of veterinarians
are "concerned" or "very concerned" about being sued, according to the 2007 Veterinary Economics Business Issues Study. And rightly so. The idea that pets are more than just property is taking hold with animal lovers across
the country. Animal law is being offered as a subject at more than 90 American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools.
And three years ago, the ABA began including an animal law committee in its tort trial and insurance practice section.
So yes, as a veterinarian, you're right to worry about a lawsuit. But you're probably worrying too much, especially about
being sued for malpractice. First of all, pets are still lawfully identified as property in all 50 states. And even though
animal law is now a recognized entity, veterinary malpractice lawsuits are still rare (see "Limited damages = few malpractice
suits"). Take California, for instance, a litigious state that's home to more than 7,500 licensed veterinarians. Last year,
only four veterinary malpractice lawsuits were filed in the state's superior court.
A closer look: Limited damages = few malpractice suits
Of course, these realities offer small consolation if and when you get sued. The following steps will prepare you to survive
a malpractice suit so you can stop worrying and continue protecting yourself, your practice, and your patients.
Step 1: Stay calm.
A lawsuit always follows a predictable, step-by-step process. Instead of panicking, just focus your energy on completing the
next step—and try to find comfort in the fact that this is a routine and well-traveled road lying ahead of you. Understanding
the process limits surprises and frees you up to continue practicing your best medicine. For a start-to-finish explanation
of what happens during a malpractice lawsuit, click here.
Step 2: Contact your professional liability carrier.
Ask that the carrier provide you with representation. A malpractice suit can range from a simple small claims action to a
complex case tried before a jury in superior court. You'll need an attorney no matter which situation you face. (Some states
do not allow your attorney to represent you at the trial in small claims court. However, I still recommend hiring an attorney
to guide you through the process—and maybe even help you get the lawsuit dismissed.) If you don't have insurance, you must
hire your own attorney to avoid a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. And this is a good chance to remind you to get
insurance before it's too late.
Step 3: Do your homework.
Review the pertinent medical record, but do not make any changes. Also write a timeline of the events leading up to the lawsuit.
Do this right away so you don't forget details over time.