How to avoid common pitfalls in the pre-purchase exam

How can vets avoid equine negligence claims when conducting pre-purchase examinations?

by Jennifer Banfield
19 December 2017, at 3:44pm

The sale or purchase of a horse or pony appears to be a simple business transaction in the eyes of many prospective purchasers (and sellers). Often it involves considerable sums of money, high emotion and unrealistic expectations. It is important that we as veterinary surgeons do not promise too much of pre-purchase examinations (PPEs). Modern consumer society dictates that if disappointment follows, or something goes wrong, someone must be to blame. 

Invariably, the veterinary surgeon is the alleged culprit. This is despite the fact he or she has only had one opportunity to examine the horse before giving an opinion. So often the seller, who may have known the horse well, proves to be beyond the law because the purchaser has sent his expert (i.e. you) to examine the goods on his or her behalf. The reputation of the ‘expert’ adviser, be it friend, instructor or yard owner, who recommended the horse as suitable for the purchaser also remains untarnished. 

All vets performing PPEs are at risk of a claim being brought against them; reputation and experience do not provide immunity. It is a tribute to our profession that claims are not more frequent. This is in no small part due to the excellent design of the approved PPE certificate, which is supported by BEVA, RCVS, VCI and Veterinary Ireland. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 PPEs are carried out each year in the UK and Ireland. Almost half of all equine negligence claims involve a PPE; in 2016, 143 negligence claims were handled by the VDS, of which 64 involved a PPE.

Communication is key 

As with many aspects of veterinary practice, communication is key. The booking-in procedure for a PPE is very important as it enables early discussion about the process and any concerns the prospective purchaser may have. It’s also advisable to email the blank certificate and guidance notes to the prospective purchaser in advance to show what is the seller’s responsibility and what is unable to be verified by the veterinary surgeon performing the PPE. 

There have been several claims made to VDS intimating procedures such as pregnancy diagnosis and height measurement should form part of a routine PPE. Remember that we are being employed by the prospective purchaser to protect their interests. Our primary responsibility and duty is owed to the purchaser. The only duty we owe to the seller is a responsibility to conduct our examination in a reasonable manner so as not to damage the horse or injure the handler. 

In the final analysis, you are certifying that the horse has been examined and that you have recorded your findings and reported them fully. 

You are assisting your client to decide whether to purchase the horse. You are not, and cannot be, expected to give any guarantee of the animal’s future usefulness or athletic/competitive success. 

Lame allegations 

Around 25% of PPE claims arise because lameness is noted by the purchaser (or their vet) soon after taking possession of the horse. Not infrequently, it is alleged the horse must have been lame at the time of the examination! Often our ability to defend such claims is dependent upon the veterinary surgeon involved being able to demonstrate that a thorough and detailed examination of the horse’s musculoskeletal system and gait was completed. This is much easier to do when the examination has followed a standard protocol and the results of the examination have been clearly documented.

There has been a decline in PPE claims involving dental issues, with a drop from 5% to 4% over the past 10 years. Nonetheless, a considerable body of opinion suggests that the PPE should include a more complete oral examination involving a speculum. 

At the 2017 BEVA congress, there was an important debate on whether the PPE should include a complete oral examination. In response, BEVA has set up a working party consisting of experienced equine practitioners from the UK and Ireland along with an equine claims consultant from the VDS to look at this subject in detail. Watch this space for a full report on their findings.