Vets Sue to Silence Criticism:
A Toonces Project Editorial, by Stefani Olsen
Three veterinarians in two different states have sued their former clients for telling their stories on the Web.
These websites include the Veterinary Abuse Network (http://www.vetabusenetwork.com/), the internet's largest resource site for pet owners concerned about the quality of care (or lack thereof) provided to their pets by veterinarians. At the time that I was preparing to file a complaint in Maryland against Marc Katz of Kindness Animal Hospital, the Vet Abuse Network site was invaluable to me as a resource for information about filing complaints with veterinary boards, and what kind of outcome I might expect. In fact, at that time it was one of a scarce few resources on the Web for consumers to find information on what to do in cases of suspected veterinary malpractice or malfeasance, information on how vets are regulated and by whom, where complaints can be filed, etc. This site has undoubtedly been an equally valuable resource to many pet owners seeking consumer information on veterinary quality concerns. Ms. Julie Catalano, a journalist, launched the site after her experiences with the Texas Veterinary Board. The Veterinary Abuse Network's mission is "To EDUCATE and SAVE—even if it means educating one companion animal guardian at a time, and helping them to save one companion animal at a time." Veterinarian Edward Nichols of Crestway Animal clinic, against whom Ms. Catalano filed a formal complaint, is suing Ms. Catalano for her account of her experiences with him as told on the site.
By the time Betty Garrity filed her complaint with the state board against veterinarian David Faulkner for his treatment of her beloved assistance animal, Bo Bo Bear, Dr. Faulkner already had a disciplinary record. Dr. Faulkner has filed a lawsuit against Ms. Garrity for telling her story on her website, http://bobobear.bravehost.com/.
In North Carolina, veterinarian Kevin Monce was found by the State Veterinary Board in violation of several state statutes and Board rules as a result of the complaint filed by Nancy and Edna Deas, and fined $5,000 by the Board in that case. Now Dr. Monce is suing the Deas' sisters for statements made on their website, http://www.aligus.com/, regarding his "care" of their pets.
What do Julie Catalano, Betty Garrity, and Nancy and Edna Deas have in common -- aside from maintaining websites on which they tell their accounts of bad experiences with a vet?
Well, for one thing, they all live in states with no protection from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP suits). SLAPP suits are typically filed by public officials, companies, or more powerful and monied individuals to silence the critical speech of other less powerful or less wealthy citizens on issues of public concern. Those who file SLAPP suits know that "freedom isn't free." Defending your free speech rights against someone with more power, money, or institutional support than you have is costly -- emotionally, financially, and in many other ways. SLAPP suits have a strategic purpose that goes beyond stifling the speech they specifically target. A SLAPP suit has a "chilling effect," silencing not only current critics, but future criticism as well. The message is: "Keep Your Mouth Shut, OR We Sue. We will make your speech very expensive for you."
Is it mere coincidence that three veterinarians have filed suits intended to silence criticism of their services on the internet? Or is it part of a coordinated campaign -- a strategy -- being employed by the veterinary industry to create a "chilling effect" so that no aggrieved client dare speak out about what happened to their pets at the vet?
A critical issue in defending a SLAPP suit is whether or not the speech in question is on a matter of public concern. Are dangers to our pets -- whether they be in the form of BAD vets, BAD food, or BAD medicines a matter of public concern?
The answer to this question is a no-brainer to anyone living in the 63 percent of all U.S. households that share their lives with a companion animal. I repeat: 63 percent.
There is no better evidence for this than the outrage and concern over the recent pet food contamination disaster. Numerous blog and websites have popped up devoted to tracking this issue, which threatens all of our companion animals. These sites -- which include http://www.itchmo.com/, http://www.howl911.com/, and others -- keep pet guardians informed on the latest recalls, breaking news, so that they will be better able to protect their pets. This issue has been front and center in national news AND local news, the topic of editorials in publications with national circulation including USA Today.
But, you might ask, how important is it to name names on these sites? Isn't it enough merely to warn pet owners to be wary, and tell the story without identifying a specific veterinarian(s)?
Well, I ask you: How helpful would it be to you if an alert was issued telling you that there was pet food out there on the store shelves contaminated with melamine and rat poison, and that you might even be feeding it to your pets right now -- but no one would tell you which brands were known or suspected to be adulterated?
Without "naming names" of suspected or known contaminated food, how many MORE dead and sick pets would there be in addition to the untold thousands that there already are?
I rest my case.
Websites like the those being sued today provide information to pet owners that they can use to help keep their pets safe. What you as a pet owner do with information and statements of opinion that appear on these sites is your business. You may choose to ignore, or act on, information you read there. But you alone are the decision maker for your pet, and when your pet's life may be at stake, your powers of discernment as you review statements made by others -- whether they be about vets or pet food -- are critical. Your pets life depends on your judgment.
Oh, and there is one more thing that Julie Catalano and Betty Garrity have in common: Both of their complaints against the veterinarians were dismissed. But then, they aren't alone. That's an outcome shared by approximately 90% of the pet owners who file complaints against vets in Texas -- including Greg Munson -- whose story was featured by CBS affiliate KTVT in their coverage of this issue. (Mr. Munson, who also has a website which tells his account of bad experiences with vet Ann K. Thomas, has not been sued.) In their coverage (which aired with the banner, "Bad Vets") KTVT reported that in 2006, the Texas Vet Board received 212 consumer complaints against veterinarians in 2006 -- yet disciplined only 17. That's 8%. KTVT noted that this low disciplinary rate is "prompting calls for reform on how the board does business," and quoted Fort Worth attorney Philip Gregory as commenting: "You need to have a veterinary board that is willing to actually listen to the consumer."
Do you believe that the 92% of vets against whom complaints were filed but who were not disciplined are all good vets who did nothing wrong simpy because the State Vet Board -- a government body composed primarily of fellow veterinarians -- didn't discipline them?
If you do, then you probably also believe that only 16 pets have died from the contaminated food because the FDA, a government agency, says so.
Do you trust governmental bodies to protect our pets? Look at the track record, it speaks for itself.
Only you can protect your pet. Sad, but true. So when you read accounts of vet care gone bad, whether on this site or other sites, be discerning. Remember, you HAVE CHOICES when it comes to what to feed your pet. And you HAVE CHOICES when it comes to seeking veterinary care, too.
For more on SLAPP suits and our first amendment rights, visit http://www.thefirstamendment.org/slapp.html
For more information on Texas' woeful veterinary disciplinary record, view the recent news coverage on this topic:
"Pet Owners Claim Vet Malpractice Killed Dogs" -- http://cbs11tv.com/topstories/local_story_080203249.html/
"Pet Owners Fight for Better Animal Health Care" -- http://cbs11tv.com/topstories/local_story_081210750.html/
To visit sites whose owners are being sued by their former veterinarians:
For information on another case dismissed by the Texas Board, visit Stempy's site, at http://stempy.bravehost.com/.
The Vet Abuse Network -- http://www.vetabusenetwork.com/
Bo Bo Bear's Site -- http://bobobear.bravehost.com/
Aligus -- http://www.aligus.com/