Prevention breeds protection
So, should we have a client restrain his or her pet? Never allow the client to restrain the pet? It seems like either way,
you can lose. Here are the best legal guidelines to use in the daily effort to prevent a lawsuit while simultaneously protecting
your staff and your wallet.
1. Common sense.
There is no absolute way to prevent human injury in the veterinary workplace in every instance, but there are ways you can
reduce the likelihood of insurance and malpractice claims. For example, you should make sure all office call assistants receive
adequate and thorough training before they undertake the role of appointment helper. I'd rather have a sensible and experienced
pet owner help me during an office call than some lumbering new hire who has never learned anything about animal restraint
or animal behavior during stress.
2. Instructions and the opt-out.
If your practice routinely relies on clients to restrain their pets during an office visit, it's worth taking the time to
demonstrate, at least briefly, the proper way to hold on to the pet during the exam. Also, offering to call in a restraint
person and having that offer declined puts the veterinarian in a better legal position in the event of a bite than never having
offered at all.
3. Client warnings.
If your practice does use an office call attendant or office call technician, it's wise to specifically tell the client that
the helper will handle the restraint and that the client is not to be involved in that activity. Naturally, there are always
those clients who insist on putting their hands on and around the pet's face during your palpations and probing, so it's wise
to train your office call technician on the best way to "gently but firmly" advise these clients to stop doing so. Many clients
will assure you that their pet would never bite them, but the admonishment has important legal significance, making it worth
4. One-bite-free rule.
In a number of jurisdictions, there is a legal doctrine that says pet owners are not responsible when their dog bites someone
if it's the first occurence. The theory is that the event could not reasonably be foreseen because it never happened before.
One can extrapolate from that doctrine that a prior bite or attempt to bite does imply legal foreseeability. That means that
it's probably best never to permit a dog or cat who has ever bitten or tried to bite you or anyone else to be restrained by
5. Generous insurance limits.
Very simply, juries love to give away insurance companies' money and in many instances, juries don't know how much insurance
coverage a physician or veterinarian has when they are deciding on damages in a malpractice case. Therefore, it's possible
that an injured hand or face could result in a $150,000 verdict, when a doctor's coverage is limited to $100,000. Guess where
the excess verdict amount will come from? In the final analysis, realistic insurance coverage may be more important than the
decision whether to use an office call technician or take your chances with client restraint.
Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call
(607) 754-1510 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org