Veterinarian Malpractice: Your Computer May Be Worth More Than Your Pet
(Story by Carol Thompson) Joey O’Connor traveled 300 miles to buy his wife two Coton-De-Tulear puppies at a cost of over $1,000 each. The fluffy white puppies quickly became a part of the family and went everywhere with Joey.
On the advice of his veterinarian, Joey waited until the puppies were six months old to have them neutered. He decided to have them done two weeks apart so that he could give each healing pup the needed attention.
The first puppy had surgery and all went well. The surgery went off without a hitch and the dog healed quickly. All seemed fine when he picked up his second puppy- that was until he got him home.
“Opie” went home with a cone collar, one that seemed to overwhelm the tiny dog. Joey noticed that the puppy wasn’t moving much and attributed it to the cone collar. But not long after, Opie wouldn’t move to relieve himself. He whined and whimpered continually. When Joey would try to lift the puppy to his feet, he would fall. The following day, Opie was back at the veterinarian’s office.
“I was told to give it another day or two,” O’Connor said. The upstate New York resident said that he expressed concern to the veterinarian that Opie appeared to be in extreme pain. “I was told it wasn’t unusual.”
Two days later, Opie still wouldn’t move and whenever Joey tried to help him to stand, Opie would fall. Joey removed the cone collar, but it made no difference.
Back at the veterinarian’s office, an examination concluded that somehow during the surgery Opie had suffered nerve damage and his back legs had become paralyzed.
For Joey, it meant only a refund of the surgery fees.
Because in some states, a pet is considered “property,” and property is only worth its face value. And although New York State goes beyond many state in pet malpractice cases, the cost of litigation far outweighs the potential monetary award.
Veterinarians’ carry malpractice insurance but taking a veterinarian to court is a costly endeavor and one that is likely to result in less compensation than was spent on the lawsuit itself. The plaintiff must prove that the error is one that a professional, who is expected to have a certain level of competence because of special training and experience, wouldn’t make. But how a judge or jury would make a comparison is unclear. It is generally up to the plaintiff to bring in an expert witness.
When going to court, a plaintiff can attempt to recover the cost of treatment necessary to fix the damage caused by the malpractice and the market value of replacement. Only in some states can a veterinarian be sued for sentimental value, emotional stress, or punitive damages.
In any regard, the pet owner must meet two criteria: That the veterinarian acted incompetently and that the incompetence caused the injury or death.
A LexisNexis search of lawsuits brought against veterinarians in different states shows that malpractice lawsuits have increased substantially since the 1970s, a time when awards were primarily no more than the market value of the animal.
During the 1990s, award levels began to increase, with settlements reaching $5,000 to $10,000.
A 1995 case, Rappaport v. McElroy filed in the Los Angeles Municipal Court, reached an out-of-court settlement of $15,000 for the death of a cat that had died after being treated with a toxic flea product that was intended for cattle. The plaintiff had sought $25,000 for the death of his exotic cat and settled with the veterinarian’s insurance company. The case filing can be found here.
In 1997, a couple who sued in Texas weren’t as lucky. Richard and Susan Zeid filed an appeal with the Texas Court of Appeals after a trial court dismissed their lawsuit against Dr. William Pearce, d/b/a Coronado Animal Clinic, for veterinary malpractice after their dog suffered from allergic reactions resulting from alleged negligent vaccinations. The Zeid’s sought to recover damages for pain, suffering, and mental anguish. The court noted that, in Texas, the recovery for the death of a dog is the dog’s market value, if any, or some special or pecuniary value to the owner, such as some special service the dog provides.
For O’Connor, he sought the advice and treatment of another veterinarian and Opie is doing better, although he still has a long road ahead of him.
While many states continue to treat pets as property, an aggrieved pet owner can file a complaint with the state licensing board. Although they don’t provide any monetary relief to the complainant, it does allow state boards to keep check on veterinarians and take action should complaints become numerous. (Image: dogbreedlists.info)