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Dog bite ruling may have unexpected consequences

Being bitten or scratched by patients is an occupational hazard for veterinarians. In the United States, a veterinarian who is injured by a patient can...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 27th 2008


Being bitten or scratched by patients is an occupational hazard for veterinarians. In the United States, a veterinarian who is injured by a patient can not sue the animal’s owner.

Laws state that veterinarians have special knowledge of animal behavior and should be able independently to assess whether a pet is a threat. We have the right to refuse to treat an animal that we decide is hazardous. However, if we are injured by an animal that we have elected to treat, we cannot hold the owner liable.

A court ruling last fall set a precedent that will expand the group of people who are not able to seek damages from animal owners.

A kennel worker was mauled by a dog. She sued the owner of the dog. The court ruled that kennel workers, like veterinarians, have special knowledge of animal behavior. They therefore cannot hold owners of animals liable for injuries sustained while working. The ruling likely applies to all staff members at boarding, grooming, and veterinary facilities.

At first glance, this sounds like good news for people who have nervous pets that lash out at vets or groomers. However, the ruling may have a dark side for these animals.

First, the ruling allows injured animal workers to sue owners who do not disclose their pet’s previous aggressive or nervous behavior. In other words, if a pet has ever bitten or scratched a person and its owner does not disclose that fact, the owner can be sued.

As well, there is no doubt that America is a sue-happy place. Some day, a kennel worker will be bitten by a dog. He will start looking for someone to sue. He won’t be able to sue the dog’s owner, but he will be able to go after his boss. And he will probably win. After all, employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace.

What could happen next is frightening. A combination of workplace safety laws, insurance company policies, and litigation precedents could make it impossible for veterinarians to treat any pet that anyone in the facility feels may be dangerous. In the worst-case scenario, nervous or nippy animals may not be able to receive any form of veterinary care whatsoever.

I hope that this scenario does not play out. But in the crazy world of the US legal system, I fear that anything is possible.

Due to the controversy that surrounds the terminology, I try to avoid using the words owner and guardian. However, this post deals with legal matters and litigation. Courts unambiguously and consistently use the word owner. I have followed that precedent in this post.