Medical Malpractice Litigation for Pets?

People spend millions of dollars a year on their pets and a major portion of that is vet bills. A study showed over $15 billion was spent on veterinary bills in 2016. Currently, pet owners spend more than $18 billion a year on pet healthcare. Some people feel their pets are a member of the family, just as a child would be. This seems especially true when the person has no children. Additionally, many studies have been done which point to distinct health benefits pet owners receive from the relationships they have with their pets. There have been important advances in veterinary care and services in recent years which may account for an almost 4 percent increase in pet spending from 2015. Pets have become a large part of American culture and the court system is beginning to realize that.

Traditionally, pets have been looked at as property. Recent court decisions have made major changes in that tradition, however. New York, Texas and Maryland courts have make landmark decisions in medical malpractice involving pets and their vets. Divorce court also sees a few pet custody cases. Instead of considering only who bought the pet or took most care of it, judges consider the best needs of the pet, just as they would in a child custody case in family court. There have been more than 25 state judges to manage financial trusts set up in pet’s names. It is clear the laws are changing when it comes to pets.

With so much more emphasis on pet’s owners as parents of a sort, the courts are seeing more cases of pet medical malpractice. For instance, a pet owner may admit their dog to a vet for dental surgery, being spayed or neutered, or a broken bone. It is possible for something to go wrong and the animal lose its life in the process. What if the vet was at fault? If there is proof some form of negligence occurred on the vet’s behalf that caused the dog to die, the owner could possibly receive remuneration for not only the cost of the dog and vet services, but also pain and suffering and other nonfinancial claims.

Some of these laws have been in existence for a while, but rarely used. California and Kentucky courts have awarded grieving pet parents damages for loss of companionship and emotional distress since 1997. Not all judges were so inclined, however. The result was a lot of cases where pets were treated like used cars and given a depreciated value of even less than the owner paid for them. It is cases like that which pushed pet owners to demand different treatment in courts.

California has, so far, doled out the largest damages to a pet owner in a legal dispute. Marc Bluestone was awarded almost $40,000 by an Orange County, California jury for the misdiagnosis of liver troubles of his dog Shane. He was awarded $30,000 for Shane’s unique value to him and $9000 for vet bills. While more and more pet owners are exercising their right to take negligent veterinarians to court, the rewards are much smaller than human medical malpractice.

These judgements are not without their critics. Most of whom use the same argument against human malpractice judgements. They feel treating pets like humans in court leads to a cavalcade of implausible animal rights lawsuits such as claims of behalf of beef cattle or medical research rats. Such lawsuits drive up the cost of veterinary care which in turn lead to more pets suffering because their owners cannot afford pet care. It is also known that pet owner suits are usually highly impractical for the owner. Attorney fees, court costs and other fees usually outweigh the award amount.

Court cases of pet medical malpractice are much the same as any human case. If a pet owner feels there is proof of negligence on a veterinarian’s part, they may file a claim against them for medical malpractice. Veterinarians are medical doctors and are legally and ethically held to the same standard as doctors of human care. Before a pet owner considers a medical malpractice suit, they must first know what medical practice is. Medical malpractice is a mistake, below the standard of care, made by a caregiver who has a certain level of education and training and should know better. Misdiagnosis is a large part of pet medical malpractice. Treating an animal for worms, when it has a bad mange is a possible example of medical malpractice, assuming it is below the standard of care.

Negligent treatment of a pet is not confined to the veterinarian in medical malpractice cases. The vet may be responsible for a pets death or injury if they allow any untrained person to treat the animal or if a staff member is responsible for the misdiagnosis or fatal treatment plan. Just as in human cases, medical malpractice cases for a pet must be filed within one year of the discovery of negligence in most cases.

Pet owners must prove a vet was negligent to win a case. They must prove the vet made a mistake other vets of the same caliber would not have made. If the vet is registered as a specialty field veterinarian, they are held to higher standards than a general care vet. In most cases, the help of an expert witness must be acquired. An expert witness could be another vet of equal or higher certification who can show proof of the error.

Pets have become a major part of American society. Their deaths at the hands of an incompetent vet can be devastating. Many people will take a loss in court, simply to make a point that their pet was important. Laws are slowly changing to acknowledge a pet owners pain but will it lead to higher vet costs and more ailing pets? The verdict is still out.

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