It’s a pet owner’s worst nightmare:
You bring your animal to your veterinarian for a routine procedure and something goes horribly wrong.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 70,000 veterinarians in the country.
Statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association indicate that pet owners spend more than $40 million taking their pets to the vet. Costs for many veterinary procedures rival those of medical procedures for humans.
Can I sue my veterinarian?
Yes! If your veterinarian commits malpractice, you can sue them for damages related to the injury of your pet. Veterinary malpractice is a lot like medical malpractice. To establish a successful claim, you have to prove 4 things:
- Duty of care. You have to prove that your vet accepted the responsibility to treat your pet. This is usually easy to prove, as treatment is generally scheduled ahead of time.
- Breach. You have to prove that the actions or inactions of your vet fell below the professional standard of care.
- Proximate cause. You have to prove that the deviation from the professional standard of care was the cause of your pet’s injury.
- Damages. You must prove that there was some damage to YOU (not just your pet).
In most veterinary malpractice cases, the most difficult element to prove is “breach.” That is, that the vet deviated from the professional standard of care.
Most states define “professional standard of care” as “the exercise of the care and diligence as is ordinarily exercised by skilled veterinarians.” While some states compare the behavior in question to that of skilled veterinarians in the local community, others compare it to that of skilled veterinarians in the nation.
The bottom line is that to establish a successful veterinary malpractice claim, you’ll need to consult other veterinarians to provide expert testimony that your vet’s actions departed from what the average vet would do in the same situation.
In rare cases, your vet’s actions might be so bad that you won’t need to hire expert witnesses to establish a breach of the professional standard of care. The fancy name for this legal principle is “res ipsa loquitur,” which simply means that the act is so bad that negligence is presumed.
For example, if you bring your dog in for surgery on his right paw and the veterinarian amputates his left paw, res ipsa loquitur would likely apply.
Defenses to veterinary malpractice
If you sue your veterinarian, you may reach a quick settlement (most likely with the vet’s insurer) or the vet might put up a fight. The most common defenses to a veterinary malpractice lawsuit are:
- Statute of limitations defense. The statute of limitations refers to the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. If you don’t file your lawsuit within the statute of limitations, your case will be dismissed. The statute of limitations in veterinary malpractice cases is generally 2 or 3 years, but the exact time varies from state-to-state.
- Good Samaritan defense. Most states have Good Samaritan laws. Under these laws, if a vet renders care in an emergency situation, they’ll only be liable for gross negligence. Gross negligence is a more egregious form of negligence. It won’t be sufficient that the vet deviated from the professional standard of care. Rather, you’ll have to show that the vet deviated substantially from the standard of care (such as in the case of the vet amputating the wrong paw).
Veterinarian negligence damages
The traditional computation of damages for the loss of a pet is the market value of the pet. In other words, the amount of money someone else would pay for a pet of the same age, breed, condition, etc.
Understanding that pets are more valuable to their owners than their “market value” reflects, some states have broken away from the traditional computation of damages and have allowed damages for:
- Emotional distress (the mental anguish suffered by the pet owner)
- Loss of companionship
- Intrinsic value (the “true value,” rather than how much the pet can be sold for)
In addition, a veterinarian who commits malpractice may face disciplinary action (such as the suspension or loss of their license).
In California, a dog owner sued 2 veterinarians after the death of his 3-year old Labrador retriever. The owner alleged that the veterinarians, over a 4-month period, misdiagnosed the dog’s illness, lied about the dog’s condition, and failed to advise the owner of the treatment risks.
After the trial, the jury awarded the owner $39,000. Importantly, the jury chose to award the owner the intrinsic value of the dog ($39,000), rather than the dog’s fair market value, which was determined to be $10.
Do I need a lawyer?
You’ll need to weigh the cost of an attorney with the potential cost of litigation to determine whether hiring an attorney to pursue a veterinary malpractice claim makes sense for you.
When it comes to veterinary malpractice cases, attorneys generally work on a contingency fee basis. This means the attorney won’t charge you anything unless they recover damages. Before making a decision, it’s always good to meet with an attorney. Most initial consultations are free and the attorney can help you decide whether your claim is worth pursuing.
If you need help finding an attorney in your area, consult our free online directory.