The Lawsuit Landscape
Unrealistic expectations, treatment complications and legal impracticalities make veterinary malpractice claims a precarious proposition for all.
Disagreements between dog owners and veterinarians are common. Often, owners feel frustrated or resentful over perceived negligence in their dog’s care. In some cases, this is a valid perception, but it can also be the result of misunderstanding and miscommunication. With forethought and planning, many disagreements can be avoided, as well as any legal action that may follow.
In 2004, an Orange County, Calif., jury awarded Marc Bluestone $39,000 in a malpractice suit against two veterinarians after his 3-year-old mixed-breed dog, Shane, died while in their care.
“Bluestone was a man of financial means and [the two veterinarians] knew money was not an issue,” says Bluestone’s attorney, Robert Newman of Santa Ana, Calif., who has worked on hundreds of veterinary malpractice cases. “The veterinarians treated the dog for less than four months, and Bluestone spent more than $30,000 on vet care in that time. At one point, they had the dog on 20 medications. They over-medicated the dog, and ultimately it died of liver failure.”
According to Bluestone’s lawsuit, the veterinarians misdiagnosed Shane’s illness, failed to advise Bluestone of treatment risks, and administered unnecessary and improper care that ultimately led to the dog’s death. “The case dragged on for two years,” Newman says. “The vets offered to settle, but [Bluestone] really wanted a verdict.” The jury based the award on the dog’s unique value to Bluestone; Newman concedes that the verdict was very unusual.
Why was Bluestone’s verdict so unusual? According to Deirdre Gallagher, an attorney, veterinary malpractice is no different than medical malpractice. “The elements are the same in any professional negligence case: duty of care, breach of standard of care, causation and damages.”
In other words, if a veterinarian accepts the responsibility to treat your dog and he falls short of professional conduct in a way that causes harm, you have grounds to sue for malpractice. This might seem straightforward, but proving a veterinary malpractice case can be complicated. Many veterinary procedures require the owner to sign a waiver absolving the vet of liability (for instance, if the dog dies while under anesthesia).
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