A Brief History of Veterinary Malpractice — Part 2 of a 3-Part Series about Veterinary Malpractice

0 Comments Posted by Vet Network in General, Legal, Pet Law, Pet Trends, Veterinary Malpractice on Wednesday, June 6th, 2012.

In Part 2 of this 3-part series on veterinary malpractice, we offer a brief overview of how the legal system has evolved in its thinking about pets and their value to their owners, as well as how this affects veterinary medicine and veterinary law, for better or for worse.

Written by:
Mark Feltz, DVM
Monica Feltz, J.D., LL.M.

The Question of Value in Vet Malpractice

In the 1970’s, pet owners who sued for veterinary malpractice could only recover the market value of their animal, if anything at all. This was because animals were – and remain to be – characterized as mere property interests under the law, and property was valued according to the amount of money you paid for it. Just as the sentimental value you have for your dress or tractor does matter in a court of law, for better or worse, a similar thinking has driven the valuation of pets.

A New Legal Landscape for Veterinary Malpractice

In the 1980’s, settlements for vet malpractice were going at a rate of approximately $1,000. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s, however, that things really started changing, and pets were viewed in more lucrative terms. Since the late 90’s, courts in Kentucky and California, for instance, have awarded veterinary malpractice damages to pet owners for emotional distress caused by the death or injury of a pet, loss of an animal’s companionship, and various other factors that the law had not previously considered when estimating the value of an animal.

Rising Costs in Veterinary Malpractice

Then, in 2004, the game was changed when Marc Bluestone was awarded $39,000 for the loss of his mutt to seizure complications, after a veterinarian’s misdiagnosis or negligence– $30,000 of which was to cover the “unique value” of the dog to his owner. But after five years of litigation and $375,000 in costs to Mr. Bluestone, this verdict was certainly no small feat.

Since then, many states continue to mend their veterinary laws in order to provide for special damages, such as the Texas Supreme Court, who recently overruled a 120-year old case that only allowed market value recovery of an animal. On its heels was the recent April 2012 precedent-setting case in which a Colorado judge awarded $65,000 to a woman who lost her 18-month old dog, Ruthie, to the negligent actions of a cleaning service. Although not a veterinary medical malpractice suit per se, attaching value to an animal that goes well over and beyond the market value of the pet, indicates a major shift in the law that could drastically change the game for pet owners and veterinarians alike. In light of these vet malpractice rulings, pet owners have found themselves demanding fees that were once thought impossible to achieve under a law that still classifies animals as property. This is certainly the case for the Sutton family, who has a veterinary malpractice claim of $75,000 in a Georgia court for the loss of their 13-year-old miniature Schnauzer.

The Future of Veterinary Malpractice

The future of veterinary law, malpractice, and how legal courts determine the value of a pet will continue to be plagued by the grey line of sentimentalism vs. net monetary worth, and will likely function in extremes from low to inexorbitant costs from state to state. Until clarification of what determines a pet value and the possible veterinary malpractice it may have been subject to, is fine-tuned on a universal level; there will be continue to be discrepancies in how a pet is treated according to veterinary law.

Part 3 of this series deals with the implications of Veterinary Malpractice and provides some important tips for avoiding a malpractice suit. This will appear on our Blog during the week of June 11, 2012.

Copyright © VetNetwork, LLC / Mark Feltz, DVM, Monica Feltz, J.D., LL.M.

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