A debacle over damaged veterinary equipment

Will a veterinary associate's shattered video monitor lead to a shattered relationship with his employer?
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Aug 01, 2013

Dr. Leland Clair owned the Dunes Animal Hospital, a well-respected, thriving suburban practice in the Southwest. All of his employees—three associate veterinarians and eleven support staff members—had been with the practice at least seven years, and he valued his close working relationship with each one of them. Dr. Clair always made a point to mention that he worked with his staff veterinarians, not that the veterinarians worked for him.

Dr. Regent was a young, vibrant associate who always pursued the latest in veterinary diagnostics and who tended to bring his work home with him rather than leaving it at the office when the day was done. After-hours trips to the veterinary college library and local medical school lectures were a regular part of his weekly routine.

No one was surprised when Dr. Regent purchased a large video monitor to hook up to the clinic microscope, which allowed him to observe microscopic cells and histology samples on a larger screen as well as share the images with fellow staff members and clients. When Dr. Clair saw Dr. Regent carrying this massive monitor into the clinic, he didn't have the heart to tell him to leave it at home for fear of stifling his medical initiative. And in all honesty, although he rarely used it himself, the practice owner enjoyed the results that were often demonstrated with the high-magnification microscopic monitor.

One evening, Angela, a veterinary technician, was walking a large German shepherd down the pharmacy hallway when the dog saw a cat and lurched forward. Angela lost her balance, caromed into the counter and knocked Dr. Regent's large video monitor to the floor. The crash was deafening and the damage extensive. Fortunately, neither staff members nor patients suffered any injuries.

Dr. Regent was devastated. His "microvision apparatus," as he called it, was destroyed. Dr. Clair contacted his insurance carrier the following day to report the loss of the $4,600 piece of equipment. After a short discussion and some pointed questions from his agent, Dr. Clair had a rude awakening: neither he nor his practice owned this piece of equipment. His insurance policy didn't cover medical equipment owned by employees or clinic visitors.

Dr. Regent contacted his household insurance carrier and was told that an item purchased for use in a business outside of his home wasn't covered by his policy either. Needless to say, everybody was disappointed and upset, and the incident opened a large can of worms. It became apparent that Dr. Regent had been harboring some resentment for some time—his innovative equipment had been used in the diagnosis and treatment of many hospital patients, yet he hadn't derived any income as a result of those diagnostics. So not only was he out $4,600, but he thought he should be compensated for the additional income his specialty equipment had brought into the clinic.

Dr. Clair agonized over the loss of his employee's equipment but was less sympathetic concerning the income that it may have brought to the hospital. He never asked for or authorized the installation of the microscope monitor, nor did he ask Dr. Regent to remove it from his hospital.

The owner decided a compromise was in order. He offered Dr. Regent $2,000, an amount he felt was an adequate proration for the loss of the monitor, but no compensation for services rendered by the piece of equipment. Dr. Regent reluctantly accepted the offer—an excellent compromise considering both parties ended up only partially satisfied.

Things were never really the same after the incident between the two doctors, though. And Dr. Clair made sure that in the future, any equipment used in his hospital was owned by the hospital so as to protect against sticky situations such as this.

Rosenberg's response

Veterinarians often get very involved in the nuances of day-to-day case medicine. It's important to remember that veterinary medical practices are unique small businesses. Blurring business equipment ownership and basic small business tenets can only lead to confusion. Dr. Clair fairly compensated his employee with the prorated value of the damaged equipment.

Refusing to share any income that resulted from the use of the equipment was also appropriate in that there was never an agreement to do so. You don't take your tools to the Jiffy Lube for an oil change, do you? This way, the responsibility for the use or damage of equipment is well defined when worst-case scenarios occur.

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Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, N.J. He is a member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.