Human-animal bond steps up legal exposure

Human-animal bond steps up legal exposure

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Jul 01, 2003

As New Jersey leaders temporarily oust an animal cruelty bill dubbing loss of companionship and emotional distress as triggers for legal retort, a push to convert animal "owners" to "guardians" strikes legislatures nationwide.

At face value, the two issues seemingly aren't connected. Yet each represents a vast animal welfare movement changing the way the public views its pets. Nowadays pets often aren't the animals kept in the backyard. They're family members, eating from tables and sleeping in beds.

While the veterinary profession has long touted the merits of the human-animal bond, efforts to up the value and status of pets leaves practitioners faced with increased legal risk every time a client walks through their front door.

Sweeping legal and legislative allowances for more than an animal's fair market value in cases of wrongful death or malpractice promise to open the floodgates, exposing the profession to costly litigation and heightened critique. Guardianship terminology is another logical step toward allowing civil action to be taken on a pet's behalf, veterinary leaders claim.

(For benchmarks in the animal status movement, see DVM Newsmagazine's April cover story "Profession grapples with evolving pet status" and its subsequent chart, page 42.)

"There's just a prevailing attitude that the legal status of pets will change; it's not how, but when," says Rick Alampi, New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVME) executive director. "The concept of veterinarians positioning themselves as integral to the human-animal bond while claiming immunity from malpractice awards is a pipe dream. You can't have it both ways."

Hit from all sides

While the profession is exposed to a bombardment of malpractice and wrongful death claims typically turned away by courts upholding property status quos, practitioners now are often responsible for reporting animal abuse, which carries serious consequences.

Sitting on Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's desk is a bill passed by both legislative houses allowing damages brought about by aggravated animal cruelty. If the governor signs the measure, veterinarians could be fined up to $1,000 for failing to report such cases.

"It's a direct and dangerous link to veterinarians," says attorney Dr. Jim Wilson of Priority Veterinary Management Consultants in Yardley, Penn. "Every one of these cases is a step in the direction recognizing that society values pets more than just property. There are incremental gains that go with each one of these statutory changes.

"It's a good example of how different directions within the law bring about this rationale that pets have higher than pure market value."

More than a word

Guardianship law brings with it a whole set of legal standards different from property law, says Dr. Greg Dennis, a lawyer and head of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. While the public might view it as just a word change, Dennis disagrees.

"Words are very important in law, like the name of a disease is important in medicine," he says. "Guardianship says the animal is now a ward. That takes the option of simply putting an animal down due to economic reasons away. Guardians have a legal obligation to foot the expense of all veterinary care available."

Despite the veterinary profession's warnings, municipalities from Berkley, Calif., to Boulder, Colo., have enlisted change, implementing guardianship language into city ordinances.

In 2001, Rhode Island became the nation's first and only state to modify its laws to include pet "guardian," ousting the old ownership definitions. Since then, secondary legislation outlining new animal abuse laws related to abandonment, neglect and sexual abuse requiring guilty guardians to register as sex offenders was narrowly defeated by legislators.

"These are all just steps in the ladder," Wilson says. "What I'm seeing are patterns that link emotional damages to the intentional infliction of emotional distress."