Douglas C. Jack has been practicing veterinary law since 1986. In 2001, he started his own firm dedicated to the veterinary practice.
He is a charter and founding member and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. He is a guest lecturer at several universities, author of two books on veterinary practice management and regularly lectures at veterinary conferences.
He also maintains the veterinary law blog, VetBlawg™. (http://www.vetblawg.ca/)
Vet Planet: You will be co-ordinating the program at the 2011 VHMA Legal Symposium in Chicago this April. One of the topics you will be addressing is “Negotiating the Employment Agreement.” What are some of the key considerations for veterinarians and practice managers in this area?
DJ: The principle purpose of any Employment Agreement is to ensure that both parties, the employer and the employee, have the highest degree of “certainty” in the relationship. To this end, it is preferable that such a contract be as comprehensive as possible ensuring that you deal with fundamental issues such as compensation models, bonus provisions, job descriptions and any benefits that the employ can participate in such as continuing education allowances and any medical/dental plans. Depending on the jurisdiction in which the practice is, employers might consider the introduction of a reasonable non-competition covenant. Don’t forget to include provisions relating to confidentiality.
Vet Planet: Are there some common mistakes that can be avoided?
DJ: Generally speaking, the failure of any agreements often rests in attempting to be unduly complicated in compensation models – sticking to a strict salary or hourly wage is generally preferable. Remuneration provisions based upon production (billings) need to be carefully and precisely drafted in order to avoid interpretation disputes in the future.
Vet Planet: One of your New Year’s resolution suggestions on your blog, VetBlawg™, is for veterinarians to demonstrate a sense of compassion when they encounter an unexpected adverse result. Why is this so important?
DJ: In my experience, many client complaints can be avoided by having the practitioner merely acknowledge the sense of loss that an animal owner feels when an unexpected outcome arises in the clinic. By demonstrating a sincere sense of empathy the practitioner can avoid disputes which sometimes lead to legal actions or complaints to the regulatory authorities.
Vet Planet: And do veterinarians need to fear that an apology is a legal admission of culpability?
DJ: There is no authority for the assumption that an apology amounts to an admission of liability; in fact, some jurisdictions in both the United States and Canada have passed specific legislation confirming this notion and also dictating that an apology cannot be introduced as evidence of culpability. On the contrary, I strongly advocate that an apology should be offered by the clinician as a demonstration of genuine compassion for the client.
Vet Planet: Email communication and social networking are becoming increasingly prevalent and effective marketing tools for veterinary practices. Are there any unique legal issues that arise in this type of promotion that practices ought to be aware of?
DJ: The increase in the use of social media is exciting and an innovative means of communicating with clients in the manner that many clients actually prefer; the obvious legal concerns relate to the ethical and legal obligation for client communications to be confidential. As there is no universally accepted mode of encryption, there is always the risk that a message sent through “cyberspace” may be misdirected. In this regard, the risk of an errant message should be raised with the client with a view to having the client specifically acknowledge the risk and confirm the instructions to proceed with the use of the new media.
Vet Planet: You addressed the American Association of Veterinary State Boards in September and spoke from your perspective as counsel to licensees dealing with disciplinary matters. You spoke of the confusion that can sometimes arise around these regulatory bodies when they present themselves as advocates for the profession. Why is clear veterinary legislation so important?
DJ: In my experience there is confusion among practitioners as to the role the licensing board plays – in virtually every jurisdiction in North America the primary role is to protect the public interest. To this end, when a licensing board investigation is underway the prudent practitioner will exercise some caution in providing responses in that all such responses could potentially be used against the interests of the practitioner.
Vet Planet: You have been practicing veterinary law for twenty five years. The law offices of Douglas C. Jack have been dedicated solely to veterinary practice for a decade. How has the practice of counseling veterinary practices changed during your career?
DJ: My sense is that the most significant change has been in the attitude of animal owners towards their professional veterinary advisors. In the early years veterinarians, like other professionals, enjoyed a sense of respect by the public that seems to have eroded in more recent years. As such, animal owners now have a higher level of contempt and aggression when things go wrong and have a heightened litigious approach.
Vet Planet: Have the nature of the cases evolved?
DJ: In terms of defending veterinarians in malpractice cases, I would say that there are now more cases based upon alleged ethical breaches than in the past.
Vet Planet: And when you look forward to the next decade of advising veterinary clients, what are some of the large issues or changes you see on the horizon?
DJ: Given the impact of the human/animal bond, my expectation is that we will see an increase in litigation from animal owners who feel a deep sense of emotional loss. The courts have yet to establish a clear trend in awarding damages for the loss of companionship – as such I think there is likely to be some substantial evolution to take place.
Vet Planet: Finally, on a bit of a lighter note: over the years you must have run into some odd and funny cases. Are there any that you can share that some of our veterinarian readers might appreciate?
DJ: While not particularly funny, I’m always amazed at the lack of good judgement exercised by some veterinarians and their laystaff in terms of proceeding without the consent of the owner. In one case a veterinarian presented with a dog for dental work, decided to, without the consent of the owner, proceed to spay the dog. In a more recent case a veterinary technician elected to euthanize a companion animal that was presented to the clinic by a person who was not the animal’s owner and without advising the veterinarian (who was not even in the clinic at the time) that she was going to proceed. Surely such actions go far, far beyond the scope of any reasonable judgment with potentially very serious legal consequences for the clinic owner.
Vet Planet: Thanks for talking with us Doug.
DJ: You’re entirely welcome.
(Interviews on Vet Planet do not imply endorsement of AVT or its products.)