Doing good deeds in your clinic? Here’s a cautionary tale

Doing good deeds in your clinic? Here’s a cautionary tale

This veterinary team helped a client adopt a homeless cat—and then got slapped with a lawsuit. Here’s what happened.
source-image
Oct 04, 2017

Shutterstock.com

Dr. Hepp’s animal clinic had served suburban clients for 27 years. Dr. Hepp and his associate were truly community-minded. They were involved with local animal shelters, participated in pet expos and assisted financially strapped seniors with discounted veterinary services for their pets.

In addition to handling a busy client load, Dr. Hepp housed cats at his clinic that were available for adoption from the local shelter. One day a woman came into the clinic after seeing an orange cat named Brutus up for adoption in the clinic window. She told the receptionist she wanted to meet Brutus. The two spent 45 minutes together and the woman decided she would fill out an adoption application for this friendly feline. She had never owned a cat before and felt she was ready to take the plunge.

After Dr. Hepp determined that the woman would be a caring owner, he arranged for her to pick the cat up on a Thursday after work. When she arrived, the technician took time to tell her about the cat’s needs and medical status. He was fully vaccinated, had been neutered and was ready to go. She was going to carry him to her car, but the team told her that was a bad idea because Brutus might jump out of her arms. The technician found an empty cardboard box that had held printer paper, put the cat in the box and snapped the top in place. She then poked some air holes in the side, and off the pair went.

The new cat owner turned out of the parking lot, drove the short distance to the expressway and headed for home. After a short time in the car, the new kitty poked his head up, knocking the top off of the box. Then he jumped out of the box to explore. The new owner became flustered and reached for the energetic cat, then lost control of her car. She collided with a tree near the shoulder of the road.

The woman suffered a broken leg; the cat was no worse for wear. The car was totaled. Dr. Hepp and his staff were very concerned that this had happened. The veterinarian offered well wishes and courtesy care for the cat while the owner was recovering.

Initially it seemed that the client appreciated the gesture. However, after a short time, Dr. Hepp received a registered letter in the mail. The woman was suing Dr. Hepp for professional negligence. The letter, which was from the woman's lawyer, stated that Dr. Hepp, as a veterinary expert, should have known that the container given to the novice cat owner was not properly secured. The cardboard box’s lack of an interlocking mechanism for the lid led to the cat’s easy escape from the container and the ensuing chaos. It went on to say that the provision of a simple cardboard cat carrier with an escape-proof mechanism would have been a safe way to send the cat home.

Everyone at the clinic was flabbergasted. All they had wanted to do was find a good home for the cat and help a lonely woman acquire a friend. Dr. Hepp submitted a claim to his veterinary malpractice liability carrier. They quickly settled the case because they felt that the accusations did have some merit. Dr. Hepp reluctantly agreed to their recommendation.

Do you agree with the pet owner’s claim? Send an email to [email protected].

Dr. Rosenberg’s response

Unfortunately we live in a litigious society. It’s true that Dr. Hepp was an “expert,” but that does not waive a pet owner's need to exercise caution. Still, the lesson to be learned here is clear. Even when dealing with quasi-professional activities such as a pet adoption, due diligence is always necessary. Inexpensive cat carriers have an interlocking handle because cats are ingenious escape artists. As clinicians we must perform above the standards of the average pet owner. “Stuff happens,” yes—but we can never count on pet owners to just shrug and move on.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of his scenarios in “The Dilemma” are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.