One type of medical malpractice that has been historically overlooked but is becoming more common is veterinary malpractice. You may be able to bring a claim against a vet who causes harm to your pet through their incompetent treatment. However, you should be aware that damages awards in these cases tend to be relatively limited. Bringing a lawsuit may not be financially worthwhile because the damages may not go much further than paying for attorney fees and court costs. Some vets have started to carry medical malpractice insurance, though, and you might be able to get a settlement from the insurance company relatively easily if your vet has this coverage. You still would need to show that the vet committed malpractice.
A vet does not have an automatic duty to treat an injured animal, but they may assume this duty if they voluntarily start treating the animal. As a result, they could be liable for malpractice in these situations. (There may be an exception to liability if the vet is responding to an emergency, based on the Good Samaritan principle.) Sometimes vets may wonder what they need to do if the owner abandons the animal in their care. They can refer to state law for guidance, but they do not need to permanently continue housing the abandoned animal.
Elements of a Veterinary Malpractice Claim
Proving that veterinary malpractice injured an animal is essentially the same as proving that medical malpractice injured a person. The owner of the pet would need to show that the vet was responsible for caring for the animal, and the vet did not meet the standard of a competent vet treating an animal in a similar situation. This usually will involve hiring another vet to testify as an expert witness and explain what a competent vet would have done. A vet will be held to a higher standard of care if they are certified as a specialist in the area in which they were treating the animal.
The vet’s incompetent treatment must have exacerbated the animal’s condition or caused additional medical conditions. Causation must be clear, so just showing that the animal’s condition got worse is not enough. An expert probably will need to testify in support of causation as well. The pet owner needs to show that they suffered some tangible costs or losses. (This is different from ordinary medical malpractice cases because the owner is not the direct victim.)
A veterinary malpractice case must be brought within the statute of limitations. Medical malpractice cases often have a different statute of limitations from other personal injury cases, and veterinary malpractice cases sometimes have their own statute of limitations as well. You should make sure to research this issue carefully so that you do not accidentally waive your right to bring a claim.
Ordinary Negligence at a Veterinary Practice
Sometimes an animal will be injured because of carelessness by a vet or an assistant to a vet that does not constitute malpractice. In other words, the carelessness arose in a situation outside the provision of medical care. The vet might have failed to properly monitor the animal, allowing them to escape, or an assistant might have failed to provide them with food and water as needed. You may be able to bring a claim based on ordinary negligence in these situations. An ordinary negligence claim requires showing that the defendant did not meet a standard of reasonable care. You probably will not need an expert for this type of claim, but you still will need to comply with the statute of limitations and other procedural requirements.
In some cases, a pet owner might be able to additionally sue the hospital or veterinary practice that employed an individual who harmed their pet through ordinary negligence. This is because hiring or retaining an inadequately trained or supervised employee can amount to malpractice.
Damages in Veterinary Malpractice Cases
Most states do not allow a pet owner to recover damages for their own emotional distress caused by the harm to their pet, unless the vet engaged in egregious or intentional misconduct. Generally, the damages available in these cases are limited to the cost of the additional medical treatment required to address the harm caused by the malpractice. If the pet died because of the malpractice, their owner may be able to recover their market or replacement value. However, this usually will not account for the emotional attachment of the owner to the pet.
Since damages in veterinary malpractice cases tend to be modest, an owner may consider bringing the case in small claims court. This can be a more efficient and cheaper alternative, as long as your case falls within the monetary limit of small claims court. You do not need a lawyer for a small claims case, and you may not need to present formal expert testimony if you have a second opinion in a letter from another vet.
Another situation in which small claims court may be useful is when a pet owner sues a company that made a defective vaccine that the pet received. They can recover the expenses for treating the pet’s reaction to the vaccine. A vet will be liable for malpractice in this situation only if they gave the vaccine when they knew or should have known that it was defective.