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Animal Law Update Commentary on Animal Law and Legal Issues

Veterinarians Could Face Charges of Animal Cruelty

Posted in Animal Cruelty, Legal liability, Veterinary Examining Board

The legislators are at it again.  They continue to introduce more and more amendments to New Jersey’s Animal Cruelty Statute, without any coordinated oversight of the potential intended or – of most concern – the unintended consequences should one or more of these bills become law.

That is, amendments seemingly intended to shield veterinarians from animal cruelty charges when practicing within the standards set forth by the state and profession would provide an additional remedy for dissatisfied pet owners to hold a veterinarian accountable for an act of simple negligence or malpractice.  Currently, if an aggrieved pet owner lodges a complaint with the Board, and the Board finds that the veterinarian has been negligent, or had committed malpractice, the veterinarian would be reprimanded, and the pet owner could be compensated for the cost of veterinary care, but, generally, no animal cruelty charges would be filed.  If these new laws are adopted, the pet owner could file an additional complaint with officers who enforce the animal cruelty statutes, and with the Board’s finding, the veterinarian could be charged with animal abuse or cruelty.  Even if those charges are eventually dropped or the veterinarian prevails in court, the subsequent public-relations nightmare could devastate any veterinary career.

The proposed amendment, which appears in at least two bills, A3903and A3907 (both bills were voted out of Committee on June 10, 2013) raises concerns about the future practice of veterinary medicine.  These bills add the practice of veterinary medicine to the list of conduct that should not be construed as violating the animal cruelty statute.  On its face, this addition appears to provide additional protection to veterinarians.  Upon further scrutiny, however, by adding the practice of veterinary medicine to the Animal Cruelty Statute, veterinarians who perform in a substandard manner may be unfairly accused of animal cruelty in addition to negligence or veterinary malpractice.

Specifically, the bills state, as long as “[t]he properly conducted practice of veterinary medicine” is performed by a licensed veterinarian, that conduct cannot be construed as violating the animal cruelty statute.  That begs the question – what if a veterinarian does not practice veterinary medicine properly?  When would improperly conducted veterinary practice result in a charge of animal cruelty?

That requires a two-step process (theoretically) for a charge of animal cruelty to affix: First, a veterinarian must have failed to comply with the laws governing the practice of veterinary medicine (the New Jersey Practice Act, the Uniform Enforcement Act and related regulations); and second, that failure must have resulted in harm to an animal that is prohibited by the animal cruelty statute.  Veterinary misconduct – e.g., veterinary malpractice or negligence – is determined in court, during a veterinary malpractice litigation, or by the New Jersey State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (the “Board”), investigating consumer complaints.  As previously described, complaints before the Board are far more common than litigation.

If the Board should find that a veterinarian’s conduct constitutes negligence or malpractice, the first step in finding that veterinarian is also guilty of animal cruelty, has been achieved.  That veterinarian is no longer exempt from charges of animal cruelty, if he/she has violated any provision of the animal cruelty statute.

If an animal was injured or died as a result of the veterinarian’s negligence or malpractice, that might constitute animal cruelty under the existing statute and proposed amendments to the statute.  Under existing law, a veterinarian may be charged with animal cruelty for “inflict[ing] unnecessary cruelty upon a living animal,” if an animal was negligently harmed under their care.  Under the proposed amendments set forth in A3903, a veterinarian may be “guilty of animal abuse if the person attempts to cause or causes unnecessary bodily injury to an animal through any means…”  Neither section described requires that the veterinarian intended the resulting harm to an animal.  So a veterinarian who negligently harmed an animal, or was found liable for veterinary malpractice, could also be charged under the animal cruelty statute.

Under this new legal scheme, if a veterinarian was guilty of violating the animal cruelty statute, even if only for a single act of negligence, another proposed bill, “Moose’s Law,” would strip that veterinarian of his/her career.  Moose’s Law mandates that anyone found criminally or civilly liable under the animal cruelty statute can no longer work in an “animal-related enterprise,” including a veterinary facility.

Currently, as prohibited by the laws and regulations enforced by the Board, veterinary misconduct does not fall under the scrutiny of animal cruelty officers.  In other words, a veterinarian may be accused of violating the animal cruelty statute, but that is typically a separate and distinct cause of action from veterinary malpractice or negligence.

Some might think that these unintended consequences would not ensue.  Perhaps, but keep in mind:

  • Pet owners are increasingly seeking remedies if they believe their pet has been harmed while under the care of a veterinarian;
  • This is driven largely by the strong human-animal bond that has formed, and in many cases, pet owners view their pets as family members;
  • Legal recovery for emotional distress upon the death of their pet, as a result of veterinary malpractice or other causes, is not available in New Jersey;
  • The cost of veterinary medical care can be significant;
  • Veterinary malpractice litigation is often not pursued because of the high cost of lawsuits and low rate of success; and
  • Complaints before the Board incur no additional cost to the consumer, and may be the viable option for pet owners to get some monetary relief, and the answers they seek.

Unfortunately, mistakes in the practice of any profession occur.  Existing laws and malpractice insurance can adequately compensate pet owners and discipline veterinarians for any unintentional harm done.  Before even more amendments are made to the antiquated Animal Cruelty Statute, these unintended consequences, and others, must be carefully considered.