Set the Wheels in Motion
Operating a mobile practice exposes veterinarians to many of the same liability concerns as their walled colleagues. The right insurance policies can deliver peace of mind.
An ever-growing number of small animal veterinarians are forgoing traditional brick-and-mortar veterinary clinics in lieu of providing medical services at pet owners’ homes. Over the past year, I have assisted almost as many veterinarians with insuring their house-call practices as in the previous 20 years combined. From the pet owner’s standpoint, utilizing at-home medical care for small (and large) animals has several perceived benefits, namely privacy, convenience, time savings, stress reduction and no transportation issues.
Veterinarians enjoy these benefits:
- Observing a patient’s home environment and lifestyle can be helpful in making a medical assessment and devising a treatment plan.
- Startup costs and monthly overhead are drastically lower compared with a conventional facility.
- The freedom of travel and fewer administrative tasks are plusses.
Add all of them up and a mobile veterinary practice becomes the ideal business solution for small and large animal veterinarians.
While a mobile practice lacks a building and has few other employees, if any, several property and liability exposures should be addressed. Unfortunately, mobile veterinarians I have spoken with recently protected themselves and their businesses with only a standard professional liability insurance policy and a state-mandated minimum liability personal auto policy. The potential negative financial impact of such a choice is staggering.
Here’s what mobile and house call practitioners should consider.
Business Owners Policy
This one provides a suite of property and liability coverages for the small business owner. Coverage considerations include:
- Property: Mobile practitioners typically use a home as the base of operations. The house and personal property should be insured through either a personal homeowners or renters policy. All equipment and supplies associated with the practice should be insured as business personal property within a business owners policy. Business property typically includes computers and software, textbooks, files, medical equipment and supplies.
- Property in-transit: Virtually all business owner policies have a coverage sublimit on equipment and supplies taken off-site from the listed business address. What’s important is to have adequate insurance to cover the loss of or damage to equipment and supplies that go to off-site appointments.
- Truck inserts: Veterinarians who own a truck with a removable bed insert should make sure that the insert’s replacement value is included in the business personal property insurance limit.
- Spoilage: If a vehicle or insert contains a refrigeration unit, make sure the business owners policy has adequate in-transit spoilage coverage of the contents.
- Loss of income: A mobile practitioner’s ability to conduct business can be severely hampered if something bad happens to the vehicle. Obtain loss of income coverage in case the vehicle or insert are stolen or damaged.
- General liability: This is a part of the overall business owners policy. The minimum primary policy limit typically is $1 million per occurrence, but I recommend at least $2 million per occurrence. Mobile practice veterinarians drive for a living, of course, so at-fault liability associated with property damage or bodily injury involving other people is one of the largest areas of liability exposure. Death or serious injury to multiple people in an at-fault traffic accident can easily exceed $2 million.
Professional Liability and License Defense Policies
The veterinarian and business entity commonly are named in negligence legal actions. These two policies respond to both and might be written either for each veterinarian in the practice or combined within the overall business owners policy.
Animal Bailee Policy
Mobile veterinarians should purchase this coverage in case an animal dies or is injured while in their care, custody or control. Coverage is typically provided as a component of either a business owner or professional liability policy. The most frequent claims involving this coverage arise from an animal escaping or being hurt during transport to the medical vehicle or a physical hospital for additional treatment. The coverage typically has a sublimit per occurrence and an annual aggregate limit. Some policies have an additional per-animal sublimit. It does you no good to have a $50,000 or $100,000 annual policy limit if the coverage is only $1,000 per animal.
Mobile veterinarians use a variety of vehicles in the scope of delivering services. These range from cars to pickups with bed inserts to fully contained mobile clinics. The vehicles should be insured through either a personal or business auto policy depending on how the vehicle is titled. For example:
- Personal auto policy: This should be used when the vehicle is not titled in the name of the business. A personal auto policy typically is less expensive than a business auto policy. However, personal auto policies are intended for vehicles used mainly for personal (non-business) purposes and, at most, intermittent business use. Partial or complete denial of coverage might result from a claim arising out of use as a primary business vehicle. Additionally, standard liability limits for personal auto policies are typically much lower compared with minimum business auto policy limits.
- Business auto policy: Cars, trucks, trailers, vans and other vehicles designed for use on public roads and titled in the name of a business or organization carry this insurance. A mobile practice that owns more than one vehicle can choose different coverage types and amounts, depending on each vehicle’s value and utility.
Hired and Non-Owned Auto Policy
Personal auto policies will not respond to liability claims brought against a company for which the vehicle was being used to conduct business at the time of an accident. If your business vehicle is insured under a personal auto policy, make sure to include a hired and non-owned auto liability endorsement as part of the overall liability protection in your business owners policy. If the vehicle is titled under the business, hired and non-owned auto coverage can be included in the business auto policy.
Workers’ Compensation Policy
Workers’ compensation insurance is mandatory in most states when a mobile practice owner has employees. North Dakota, Ohio, Washington and Wyoming require employers to purchase workers’ comp insurance directly from a state fund. Mobile practitioners living in one of those states should discuss stop-gap coverage with their insurance agent. Stop-gap insurance protects employers from employee lawsuits filed over workplace injuries. Such protection is typically included in workers’ compensation policies in other states.
Umbrella (Excess Liability) Policy
When it comes to mobile practices, I generally recommend additional liability coverage in excess of the primary general liability limit. Umbrella coverage extends beyond the primary liability limits in business owners and business auto policies, thus providing additional protection against catastrophic liability claims. Umbrella liability coverage is typically purchased in $1 million increments.
Employment Practices Liability Policy
This insurance protects against employee claims alleging discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment and other employment issues. Additionally, EPL policies might cover third-party claims by clients or independent contractors and defend against allegations of wage and hour laws violations.
In the end, discuss your specific circumstances with an insurance agent knowledgeable about mobile practices.
Protect & Defend columnist Dr. Ed Branam is the veterinary and animal services program manager at Safehold Special Risk Inc. A 1977 graduate of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, he has worked in the insurance industry for the past 20 years. He is a former Sacramento, California, veterinarian and a former veterinary affairs manager with Hill’s Pet Nutrition.