Household pets often play an integral role in their owners’ lives. Some are even viewed as equal members of the family, eating gourmet food, drinking bottled water, wearing clothes and sleeping in their owners’ beds. When it comes to the treatment of animals, though, there is a disconnect between the way people view their pets and the way the law views them.
Historically the law has regarded pets as personal property. Accordingly, there were no legal claims possible for veterinary malpractice, negligent infliction of emotional distress or loss of companionship after a pet died from the negligence or malpractice of a veterinarian.
However, a series of recent court decisions across the nation have essentially treated pets as human under the law. Additionally, in Connecticut, a civil cause of action is available to hold veterinarians liable for injuring or killing a companion animal if their conduct did not meet the accepted standards of practice of the profession.
Courts’ Evolving View of Animals
In recent years, courts in New York, Maryland and Texas have addressed custody disputes over pets and decided the issue by considering the best interests of the animal. Even more, judges in at least 25 states have administered financial trusts for the support of pets. In a more well-known case, an heiress’s three dogs were left with a $3 million trust fund, Cartier necklace and Cadillac SUV while her son received only $1 million under her will.
There also have been changes in court’s views of veterinary malpractice. Pets traditionally have been deemed personal property whose worth is determined by their fair market value. Now, however, courts and juries increasingly accept that pets have an intrinsic value beyond their market value, similar to heirlooms, and are awarding damages for:
- Veterinary bills
- Negligent medical care
- Emotional distress
- Loss of companionship
The heightened intrinsic value of a pet is reflected by the fact that many people will pay $500 for a medical procedure on an animal that may have a market value of only $10. In addition to owners’ deep emotional bonds with their pets, advances in veterinary medicine have raised expectations of pets’ life spans and driven the emergence of veterinary malpractice lawsuits.
Connecticut’s Animal Injury Laws
In Connecticut, the law provides a cause of action to recover for the unlawful injury or death of a companion animal. The law states that any person who unlawfully kills or injures any companion animal shall be fined up to $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both. The person also shall be liable to the owner of the pet in a civil lawsuit.
According to the General Statutes of Connecticut, “unlawfully” refers to conduct that is willful or at least so wanton as to be equivalent to willful. This may include medical treatment-or the lack thereof-by a veterinarian that falls far below accepted standards of practice in the profession.
A companion animal is a domesticated dog or cat that is normally kept in or near the household of its owner or keeper and is dependent on a person for food, shelter and veterinary care. It does not include dogs or cats kept for farming or biomedical research practices.
What to Do if You Suspect Veterinarian Malpractice
Veterinarian malpractice is not common, but it does occur. Take the following steps if you suspect your veterinarian was negligent in taking care of your pet.
First, understand the unavoidable risks of medical procedures. If something goes wrong, it may not mean your veterinarian is automatically at fault. You must be able to prove the veterinarian was negligent, and that the negligence caused an injury to you, not just the pet. Most commonly economic or financial injury is required, but trends indicate that emotional injury also may be sufficient.
If your pet suffers harm from a procedure, do not leave it with the veterinarian in question. If it will not cause further harm, take the animal to another veterinarian for examination or to determine the cause of death.
The following are valuable ways to document suspected veterinarian malpractice:
- Take pictures of your pet and any affected areas of its body.
- Ask the office for a copy of all your pet’s records, including x-rays and test results.
- Write down all the details that you can remember about the event, including conversations with medical providers, what treatment options were explained, what permission was given and who witnessed the events.
This documentation will support your case if you file a lawsuit against the veterinarian for negligence or veterinary malpractice. It also will be helpful if you file a written report with the state licensing board. After investigating your complaint, the board may decide that no professional misconduct occurred, or it may issue a reprimand, order continuing education or suspend or revoke the veterinarian’s license.
Although veterinarian negligence or malpractice does not occur frequently, it can have devastating consequences. If your pet has suffered harm from the maltreatment of a veterinarian, contact an attorney experienced in handling pet malpractice cases to discuss any legal claims you may have.