Good Samaritan Acts and Equine Veterinarians - Business Solutions for Equine Practitioners | EquiManagement

Good Samaritan Acts and Equine Veterinarians

Depending on the law in your state, a ‘good deed’ could be punished, or you could be exempt from any legal action.
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horse stuck in ditch

The two forms of Good Samaritan Acts, where they exist, create veterinary immunity for reporting animal abuse and neglect, as well as veterinary immunity for providing emergency care to ill or injured animals.

As the old adage goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In this instance, a veterinarian comes upon a vehicle-and-trailer accident involving an injured horse. He provides emergency care to the horse according to standard veterinary practices until emergency responders arrive. Imagine his shock when he is later sued for negligent provision of that emergency treatment. Is he liable?

Alternatively, a small animal practitioner treats a dog showing evidence of neglect and abuse. She reports it to state authorities. Imagine her shock when she receives notice of an ethical complaint for violating client confidentiality. Is she liable? What’s a practitioner to do? 

The answer lies in understanding your respective state statutes regarding two forms of veterinarian immunity known as the Good Samaritan Acts. The two forms, where they exist, create veterinary immunity for reporting animal abuse and neglect, as well as veterinary immunity for providing emergency care to ill or injured animals.

Origin

To understand how these two distinct types of statutes work, we need a little legal history. Under the “common law,” i.e., law that developed over the years though litigation and reported cases, there is no duty to help others, lacking a special statutory relationship that creates that duty. Thus, under common law, you have no duty to report animal abuse, and you have no duty to render assistance to an ill or injured animal.

However, common law can be modified by acts of the federal or state legislatures where public policy justifies such modifications. Public policy argues that professionals should be encouraged to render emergency assistance when needed, without fear of litigation. Similarly, where most states currently have some form of animal-abuse prevention statutes, professionals should be able to report suspected abuse and neglect cases without fear of retaliation.

As a result, most states now provide statutory immunity to those veterinarians reporting suspected animal neglect or abuse cases to state authorities. A limited but growing number of states are now creating similar immunity statutes protecting professionals offering emergency aid to ill or injured animals.

Interpretation

Both forms of statutes represent changes to the common law. As such, they create new rights, duties and immunities, but they must be “strictly construed and applied” within the boundaries created by their precise wording. Unfortunately, this can lead to major misunderstandings by practitioners who, in the most trying of situations, are just trying to do the right thing.

For example, the California emergency treatment statute reads as follows:

§§ 4826.1 Immunity from Liability for Damages  “A veterinarian who, on his own initiative, at the request of an owner, or at the request of someone other than the owner, renders emergency treatment to a sick or injured animal at the scene of an accident shall not be liable in damages to the owner of that animal in the absence of gross negligence.”

Applying the “express wording” of the statute, a California veterinarian providing emergency treatment to a sick or injured animal can initiate that treatment on his/her own initiative, or at the request of the owner, or at the request of a third party, without liability—but only where that emergency treatment is provided at the scene of the accident.

Provision of emergency treatment anywhere other than at the site of the accident falls outside the scope of the created statutory immunity. It might appear to be nitpicking, but it remains a bright line and an established statutory construction principal.

Reporting Immunity

The first type of immunity statute creates immunity for reporting animal neglect or cruelty. Recognizing the importance of preventing animal abuse and the correlated need to report such abuse when suspected, the AVMA’s Model Veterinary Practice Act states as follows: 

Section 21—Cruelty to Animals— Immunity for Reporting  “Any veterinarian or veterinary technician licensed or credentialed in the State who reports, in good faith and in the normal course of business, a suspected incident of animal cruelty, as described by law, to the proper authorities shall be immune from liability in any civil or criminal action brought against such veterinarian or veterinary technician for reporting such incident.”

The AVMA explanatory comments for this Model Act further explain:

“This section was inserted to encourage veterinarians to report animal abuse to the appropriate authorities by providing immunity to the reporting veterinarian. The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws or local ordinances. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities. Disclosure may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate record keeping and documentation of these cases are invaluable. Any veterinarian who acts in bad faith would not be protected under the provisions of this section.”

This Model Act has been adopted in different forms by the majority of states to date, but varies widely as to whether said reporting is mandatory (i.e., must be reported) or discretionary (i.e., may be reported). One state, Kansas, makes the reporting so mandatory and absolute that failure to report constitutes grounds for disciplinary sanctions.

In identifying your state’s relevant reporting immunity, you can review the 50-state summary posted on the AVMA’s webpage at: avma.org/Advocacy/ StateAndLocal/Pages/sr-animalabuse- reporting-requirements.aspx.

Emergency Treatment Immunity

While the majority of states have enacted Good Samaritan abuse-reporting immunity statutes for veterinarians along with emergency treatment statutes applicable to human health care providers, the state legislatures have been less diligent in creating similar emergency immunities for veterinarians.

In some instances, emergency treatment immunity is broadly applied to all classes of “medical assistance providers,” including doctors, nurses and veterinarians. In other states, specific statutes create the immunity for veterinarians and their technicians. However, in the majority of states, they remain silent as to veterinarian immunity for emergency treatment.

Forms of veterinarian immunity statutes exist in Colorado, New York, California and a limited number of other states. Each statute varies widely as to who is covered, what acts are covered and where the treatment is to be provided. For example, the Colorado Veterinary Practice Act reads:

§12-64-118. Emergency Treatment  “A licensed veterinarian who in good faith administers emergency care or treatment, or euthanasia for humane reasons, to an animal, without compensation, either voluntarily or at the request of a state or local governmental officer or employee, is not liable for civil damages for good faith acts in the administration of such care or treatment.”

The California Act cited above reads as follows under “Interpretation”: 

§§ 4826.1 Immunity from Liability for Damages  “A veterinarian who, on his own initiative, at the request of an owner, or at the request of someone other than the owner, renders emergency treatment to a sick or injured animal at the scene of an accident shall not be liable in damages to the owner of that animal in the absence of gross negligence.”

Just these two statutes demonstrate the difference in wording. Each has different definitions of applicable standards such as “good faith,” or different definitions of the parameters of treatment locations, who renders the treatment and who requests the treatment. Unlike the abuse-reporting statutes, the AVMA does not currently list a 50-state summary identifying the status, state by state, of veterinarian immunity for emergency treatment.

Take-Home Message

As always, the devil lies in the details. To determine your state law, first contact your state veterinary board or association and request a copy of the relevant statutes, if they exist. Next, carefully read the statute, parsing out each segment. Pay attention to who it covers, the terms of coverage, what immunity it provides and what limits are applicable.

If you are uncertain of your interpretation, contact your state board or an attorney in your state that works with veterinary medicine and request clarification. If your state does not currently address both immunity for abuse reporting and immunity for emergency treatment, work with your legislature to enact the necessary legislation.

Spend time now familiarizing yourself with the law. This enables you to provide emergency assistance when needed, without the burden of litigation fears. It is time well spent, ensuring that in your particular case, your good deeds will, in fact, go unpunished, and will receive the respect they deserve.

Denise Farris can be contacted at Farris Law Firm LLC, (913) 766-1262 or dfarris@farrislawfirm.com. She is a nationally recognized equine and business attorney who is “AV” rated with Martindale Hubbell, and the recipient of numerous business law awards at the local and national level, including EQUUS magazine’s “Leaders in Equine Law.” The firm also offers dispute resolution services for the equine, veterinary and agricultural law industries.

Disclaimer: This article offers general coverage of its subject area. It is provided with the understanding that the author, the publisher and/or this publication do not intend this article to be viewed as rendering legal advice or service. If legal advice is desired or required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. The publisher shall not be responsible for any damages resulting from any error, inaccuracy or omission contained in this publication.