For those of you in the equestrian community a horse is a major asset, and if it falls ill you will want to invest considerable amounts in protecting that asset. When paying a veterinary surgeon, a horse owner will expect the vet to do everything they can to return the horse to full health, but occasionally things do go wrong and in these rare cases the horse owner will need to consider whether they have a case for compensation against the vet.
Wherever someone agrees to provide advice, assistance or services to a consumer, they owe a duty of care to the consumer. In most circumstances this is a duty to take reasonable care, to the standard which would be expected. However, where the service provider has to have some specialist skill or knowledge, and it is reasonable for the consumer to place reliance on that skill, they will be held to the same standard as a reasonably competent person possessing the same skills. This is established by leading cases such as Hedley Byrne v. Heller.
When does liability for professional negligence arise?
Every time you seek the services of a vet, you are giving them the entitlement to act with reasonable competence. Examples of behaviour which is likely to result in liability for professional negligence include:
*Using inappropriate equipment
*Unreasonable and unwarranted delay
*Using inappropriate procedures or techniques
*Failure to prescribe the appropriate treatment
*Failure to explain potential alternative courses of treatment
*Placing a profit motive before the best interests of the animal
*Failure to anticipate common complications or side effects of treatment
*Failure to explain the disadvantages and risks of a procedure or course of treatment
*Misdiagnosis where another reasonably competent vet would have made a different diagnosis
Like doctors, veterinary surgeons have a responsibility to ensure that they keep up to date with medical opinion and with changes in practice. If a vet fails to make sure they are aware of recent developments and as a result is using medicines, equipment or procedures which are outdated or have been shown to be non-beneficial then they will be guilty of professional negligence if any harm results.
Newly qualified and inexperienced vets
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that because they have opted to use a cheaper junior vet or trainee, rather than his senior colleague they cannot complain if they receive a service which is less than competent. This is not the case, if you approach a vet about a particular problem and he allocates the matter to his newly-qualified colleague who, because of his lesser experience is able to perform the work for a smaller fee, then you are still entitled to expect a competent performance. The case of Nettleship v. Weston makes it clear that newly-qualified or inexperienced professionals are not held to a lesser standard.
Defences to professional negligence
In the case of alleged professional negligence by doctors, the leading case of Bolam v. Frien Hospital Management Committee makes it clear that where a doctor can show that in making the diagnosis or delivering treatment, they acted in accordance with a responsible body of medical practice, and therefore are not guilty of professional negligence.
What damages are recoverable?
The general principle of law is that anyone who is found to have been negligent is liable for all losses resulting from the negligent act as long as the damage was reasonably foreseeable. The damages which are recoverable will therefore depend on the type of horse as, in most cases, the vet will be made aware of the purpose for which a horse has been bred and is kept.
For example, if a vet causes injury to a horse which has been bred specifically for racing, and which has a good career history, he will be liable for the full market value and the loss of earnings which result, as he is likely to have this potential damage in mind when treating the horse.