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Comments on the dilemma in the March issue: Legal status and malpractice
  1. Steven McCulloch and
  2. Paula Sparkes


In the dilemma discussed in the March issue of In Practice, Simon Coghlan described a scenario whereby an expert in animal law has requested you to lend your veterinary expertise to a project appealing for a law change regarding pets. The change would legally recognise emotional damages arising from veterinary malpractice and pet owners could sue for compensation of up to £10,000 (IP, March 2018, vol 40, pp 78-79). You wonder whether you should help out?

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Paula is a barrister (non-practising) and chair of the UK Centre of Animal Law

CONSIDER the following scenario related to the moral issue in Simon Coghlan’s article. In the UK, Mr Jones is driving his car along a motorway. His wife, Mrs Jones, who happens to be a veterinary surgeon, is in the passenger seat. Mr and Mrs Jones are not able to have children for medical reasons. They adore their four-year-old labrador, Sam, as if she were their only child. Sam is responsibly belted in the back seat. A terrible tragedy then happens. An irresponsible driver collides with Mr and Mrs Jones’s vehicle. Mr Jones survives the accident, but Mrs Jones and Sam are killed.

A court finds the third party to be at fault for the accident. Mr Jones is awarded £500,000 as economic damages related to the loss of his wife’s earnings. He is also awarded £12,980 bereavement damages; that is, the statutory sum recoverable under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (as amended) as ‘bereavement’ damages to a limited class of relatives of a deceased person. The first and larger sum relates to Mr Jones, as an unemployed artist, being dependent on his wife’s income. The second and smaller sum is for bereavement damages, which can be considered as akin to emotional damages in Coghlan’s article. Hence, Mr Jones receives emotional damages for the loss of his wife. Economically, Sam’s life, as a pet dog, is worthless. Furthermore, as a non-human, the family bond is not recognised by law. Hence, Mr Jones receives no damages or compensation for the death of Sam.

Imagine now that the collision fatally wounded Sam, but Mr and Mrs Jones survived with minor injuries. Aside from economic damage to the car, Mr and Mrs Jones receive no bereavement or emotional damages for the loss of Sam. So, is this situation justifiable, from a moral and legal perspective? If it is, what is the morally relevant difference that justifies such differential treatment? Coghlan’s article explores the issue of emotional damages for veterinary malpractice cases. Should veterinary surgeons lend veterinary expertise to a project promoting reform to recognise emotional damages from malpractice?

The key moral and legal principles are the same in the two scenarios. However, in Coghlan’s scenario, deliberation about the issue may be blurred by self interest. As Coghlan points out, the possibility of being sued for emotional damages may pose an additional stress for veterinary surgeons. There may be other salient differences in the scenarios. Coghlan discusses impacts on insurance fees for veterinary surgeons and the possibility of promoting defensive medicine. The countervailing argument (recognised in the article) is that litigation can lead to raised standards and, if practising ethically, vets will act in their patients’ best interests and not investigate or treat where it is not in the patient’s best interests.

Arguably, however, the key moral consideration is as follows. Are we willing to consider a pet dog or cat, who may be considered as part of a human family, as a human person? In our laws, do we recognise the moral worth of a non-human and the genuine bonds that are generated from that intrinsic value? Is it morally right that animals should be treated in law as property and nothing more without acknowledgement of their sentience and the consequential bonds of attachment that form because of this? Recognising the death of dogs, whether by car accidents or veterinary negligence cases, is significant in that it brings non-humans a step closer to humans, and may promote the better treatment of our sentient non-human fellows on a broader scale.

Everyday Ethics Poll

Last month’s poll asked:

An expert in animal law asks you to lend your veterinary expertise to support a project appealing for a law change regarding pets. This change would legally recognise emotional damages arising from veterinary malpractice cases. Should you support the expert?

41% of respondents said yes

59% of respondents said no

(46 respondents)

Vote for this month’s online poll at:

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