Can I sue my vet for malpractice?
Your pet is much more than your property. Your pet is a beloved member of your family.
Unfortunately, the law in most states treats pets as personal property, which presents some challenges when attempting to sue a veterinarian for malpractice.
In this article, we’ll take a close look at veterinary malpractice, including what you need to prove to win your lawsuit, what damages you may be able to recover, and how you may be able to hold your veterinarian responsible without filing a lawsuit.
Veterinary malpractice statistics in the United States
Statistics from the American Pet Products Association (APPA) indicate that pet owners in the United States spent more than $18 billion on veterinary care in 2018.
“Today more than ever, pet owners view their pets as irreplaceable members of their families and lives, and it’s thanks to this that we continue to see such incredible growth within the pet care community,” said APPA President Bob Vetere.
Statistics regarding veterinary malpractice aren’t well-maintained, but 1 source estimates that there are more than 2,000 cases of veterinary malpractice filed in U.S. courts every year. The same source found that veterinary malpractice claims have increased every year since 1983, in part, because owners have higher expectations of veterinary treatments and procedures than in previous decades.
When is a veterinarian liable for malpractice?
Your veterinarian is not automatically liable for malpractice just because your pet suffered an injury or died while in their care. Some injuries are unavoidable or necessary to prevent more significant injuries.
To prove that your veterinarian committed malpractice, you need to establish the following elements:
- Your veterinarian failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable veterinarian, and
- The failure was the cause of your pet’s injury or death.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these elements.
Your veterinarian failed to meet the applicable standard of care
Your veterinarian’s actions (or inactions) are judged against the actions of a reasonable veterinarian with a similar background.
For example, if your veterinarian reviews your dog’s blood work and fails to detect cancer, the question for the jury is:
Would a reasonable veterinarian have detected the cancer?
Jurors are not expected to have medical backgrounds. As a result, both parties typically retain medical experts to provide testimony about whether the veterinarian acted unreasonably.
The need for expert witnesses is one of the reasons why veterinary malpractice cases are expensive to litigate. Unfortunately, even if you don’t think it’s necessary to retain an expert, most states require you to do so.
Medical experts hired by the plaintiff testified that the veterinarian’s treatment was contrary to accepted medical practice and that, because the swelling had not been reduced in 24 hours, corticosteroids and antibiotics should have been administered.
The court ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
There is an exception to the general requirement that you must retain a medical expert. Res ipsa loquitur is a legal principle that says sometimes the action of a veterinarian is so obviously wrong that an expert is not needed to prove malpractice. Instead, the court will allow a jury to make a judgment based on the common knowledge of the community. Res ipsa loquitur may apply if, for example, the veterinarian operated on the wrong horse.
Your veterinarian’s failure to meet the applicable standard of care was the cause of your pet’s injury
It’s not enough to prove that your veterinarian acted unreasonably. You also need to prove that your veterinarian’s unreasonable actions caused your pet’s injuries. This is not as simple as it may sound.
Consider the following example:
A month later, seeing no improvement, John brings his dog to a different veterinarian who immediately identifies the swollen lymph nodes, orders tests, and diagnoses the dog with cancer.
In this example, it’s clear that the first veterinarian acted unreasonably in misdiagnosing the dog. But did the veterinarian cause the dog’s injuries? After all, the dog has cancer regardless of the veterinarian’s actions. In this example, the plaintiff will need to prove that the delay in diagnosis caused some injury to the dog.
As is the case with establishing the appropriate standard of care, parties typically use expert witnesses to establish causation.
Other potential causes of action
Not every lawsuit filed against a veterinarian is a malpractice lawsuit. If your veterinarian injures your pet while acting in some capacity other than their professional capacity, a negligence lawsuit may be appropriate.
For example, if your veterinarian injures your horse while trailering your horse, the veterinarian will be sued under negligence principles. Similarly, if your veterinarian provides boarding facilities for your healthy dog, the veterinarian will be judged under the same negligence standard as any other boarding facility.
Finally, if your pet is injured as a result of a defective medical device, a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer may be appropriate.
Defenses to veterinary malpractice lawsuits
In addition to arguing the merits of the case (i.e., that the veterinarian wasn’t unreasonable or their actions didn’t cause the injury to your pet), there are a couple of technical defenses that the veterinarian or their malpractice insurance company may employ:
- Statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a state law that limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit. Every state has a statute of limitations, but the specific time period varies depending on the state and the type of lawsuit. Generally, the statute of limitations for veterinary malpractice cases is 1-3 years from the date of the malpractice. If the plaintiff fails to file a lawsuit before the time period expires, the plaintiff will be forever barred from filing the lawsuit. It’s important to talk to an experienced attorney near you to determine what statute of limitations applies to your case.
- Good Samaritan law. If a veterinarian renders emergency treatment to an injured animal at the scene of an accident, the veterinarian (in some states) will be shielded from liability unless they commit gross negligence. This is known as good Samaritan law.
What damages are available if your pet is harmed by a veterinarian?
To understand the damages available in veterinary malpractice cases, let’s take a quick look at the 3 types of damages typically available in civil lawsuits:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by the defendant’s actions or inactions (medical expenses, property damage, etc.).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by the defendant’s actions or inactions (pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship, etc.).
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar behavior.
The unfortunate reality is that pets are considered property in most states. As a consequence, owners of injured or deceased pets are typically limited to recovering the following damages:
- The fair market value of the pet if the pet dies (i.e., what it would cost to buy a similar pet on the open market)
- Medical expenses (the cost of treating the injuries caused by the veterinarian’s malpractice)
To put it another way:
In most states, you can’t recover damages for the emotional toll that the veterinarian’s actions took on you or the pain and suffering that your pet may have experienced.
What’s more, if your pet dies, you can’t recover the subjective value of your pet (i.e., what your pet is worth to you), but you’re instead limited to the fair market value of your pet (i.e., what it would cost to buy a similar pet in the open market).
Are there any alternatives to litigation?
Filing a veterinary malpractice lawsuit is often cost-prohibitive (in other words, expensive). But this doesn’t mean your veterinarian should get away with harming your pet and potentially harm other pets in the future.
You can file a complaint against a veterinarian with your state’s veterinary licensing board. This process may result in disciplinary action against the veterinarian’s license or other remedies authorized by the license law.
Are there free legal resources available?
Suing a veterinarian for malpractice can be costly. If you’re determined to pursue litigation, it may be worth looking into free or reduced-cost representation. Here are some options:
- Law school clinics. Most law schools have legal clinics. In these clinics, law students represent qualifying members of the local community for free under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
- Legal Service Corporation (LSC). LSC is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for legal aid to low-income individuals. LSC provides funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid organizations in every state. You can use LSC’s website to find an organization near you.
- State bar associations. Every state has a state bar association. Most of these bar associations have a phone number that you can call to get connected with lawyers who offer free or reduced-cost legal services to low-income individuals.
What should you do (or not do) if you think your veterinarian has committed malpractice?
Learning that your veterinarian may have harmed your pet can be traumatic. It’s important to stay calm and take the following steps to improve your chances of recovering compensation for you and your pet:
- Do not leave your pet with the veterinarian who committed the malpractice (retrieve your pet as soon as possible unless doing so would cause further harm)
- Take photographs of your pet’s injuries
- Take your pet to another veterinarian for examination (in the case of a death, take your pet to someone qualified to determine the cause of death)
- Ask the office of the offending veterinarian for a copy of all your pet’s records
- Write down everything you can remember about the incident (conversations with the veterinarian, staff members who were present, etc.)
- Schedule an initial consultation with an attorney to determine your legal options