This article provides a short reader-based FAQ on veterinary malpractice.
Dear Animal Legal & Historical Center,
I am looking for some help. I took my cat to the veterarian for an emergency. I think the vet failed to monitor his vital signs correctly or administered the wrong dosage of medicine and my poor cat died. Now I am stuck with thousands of dollars in vet bills and my cat of 13 years is gone from my life. He was my everything. Is there anything I can do?
A concerned owner
Dear Concerned Owner,
Thank you for writing to our digital law library. I am so very sorry to hear about the trauma both you and your cat have experienced. As you said in your letter, it is difficult when we trust our animal companions in the care of others only to find the care may not have been what was expected.
Our website functions as a law library, so unfortunately, we cannot provide any direct legal advice or litigation strategy here. I am limited to providing some research information on pursuing a veterinary malpractice case if that is the route you wish to take. It really depends on which state you reside as to how your courts view damages in veterinary malpractice cases. Most states still have the antiquated view that our companion animals are mere personal property and award damages only for market value. Market value is the price someone else would pay for an animal of similar breed, health, and age. In most cases of older or mixed breed animals, this amount is nominal at best. There are a couple states (Tennessee and Nevada for example) that have laws allowing larger pet damage awards in certain cases where the actions were willful, negligent, reckless, or intentional. In both cases, the amount is limited to $5,000.
You can learn a little more about pursuing a veterinary malpractice case at our Topical Introduction. This may be a case that requires the assistance of a local attorney. You may find it helpful to read through some veterinary malpractice cases to see the type of conduct various courts consider malpractice and what type of damages are awarded.
Expert witnesses (i.e., other veterinarians who willing be willing to testify against one of their own) are needed to prove that the defendant-veterinarian's conduct fell below a professional standard. You can sometimes find attorney referrals through your state bar association (the licensing branch in your state for attorneys). Alternatively, there are dozens of attorney matching and referral sites on-line. You will likely find someone in your state who has filed such a case previously because it's becoming more common.
All of this is certainly not to discourage you from contacting an attorney and filing a veterinary malpractice claim (if you and the attorney feel it is appropriate). Many people are often shocked to learn that the legal system views animals as mere disposable property. It takes much time and money to file a lawsuit, so it may be good to know how courts view companion animals. That said, some people file lawsuits for more than monetary compensation, especially when a family member (even if it is of the animal variety) is injured or killed.
Beyond a lawsuit, you may also consider bringing this matter to the attention of the licensing board for veterinarians in your state. I see from your phone number that you may be residing in California. You can contact the California Veterinary Medical Board complaint webpage at http://www.vmb.ca.gov/consumers/comp_inf.shtml.
Again, I am terribly sorry to hear about your cat. I do hope you find some resolution that gives you peace with this matter.
Animal Legal & Historical Center