The overwhelming majority of veterinarians are extraordinary at what they do, and their compassion toward animals is the reason they chose practicing veterinary medicine over treating human patients. While many human doctors continue to regard veterinarians as inferior, the competition for admission to veterinary school is great, and the demands placed on practicing vets is even greater. DVMs serve as general practitioners for a number of species, ranging from the common categories of cats and dogs to the exotic, including birds, reptiles, ferrets, and sometimes wildlife. Additionally, every veterinarian is at once a surgeon, dentist, anesthesiologist, orthopedist, cardiologist, endocrinologist, nutritionist, allergist, pulmonologist, dermatologist, oncologist, and radiologist. For the most part, technicians and other staff at veterinary hospitals are equally compassionate, caring, and skilled professionals.
Unfortunately, as in every profession, there are veterinarians and staff members who fall below the ordinary standard of care on occasion, resulting in harm to or the tragic loss of a beloved pet that could have been avoided. Earlier this month, NPR reported on a case pending in the Tampa Bay area against the Tampa Bay Veterinary clinic in Largo, Florida. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the former owners of a Shih Tzu named Carmella. Interestingly, Carmella is also named in the suit as a plaintiff, since the couple, who had no human children, treated her as a child. Her parents have alleged negligence against the clinic for failing to treat Carmella for immune mediated hemolytic anemia, a condition for which the same clinic had treated her three years earlier. They are seeking $50,000 in damages, including emotional damages and loss of income.
Several years ago, a Clearwater family sued Noah’s Place 24-Hour Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida after the staff failed to supervise their golden retriever named Cody with a tumor on his tail. Despite the owners’ express warning and instructions to the staff to keep an e-collar on to prevent Cody from chewing his tail, they neglected to do so. As a result, Cody chewed off his tail and subsequently died from cardiac arrest. The case went to trial in 2011, but the jury could not agree on a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. It is likely that a major source of contention involved the family’s claim for emotional damages in excess of $15,000.00.
While the law of most states in the union continues to regard companion animals as mere personal property, basing damages solely on their market value, just as a computer or desk, these cases are at least spurring debate on this issue among members of the public and the legal community. Over the past decade or more, Americans have evolved to view their companion animals as part of the family. Recent medical studies reveal that pets help people lower blood pressure, cholesterol, improve heart and mental health, and become more physically active.
Dogs and other animals provide therapy for military veterans as well as victims of domestic violence while they are testifying in court. The use of therapy dogs in court is gaining momentum throughout the country, including Pinellas County, Florida.
Additionally, legal custody disputes involving companion animals are becoming increasingly common. In 2007, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi lost a bitterly contested custody dispute in St. Petersburg, Florida, involving a St. Bernard separated from his Louisiana family during Hurricane Katrina.
This growing public and legal trend of recognizing companion animals as far more valuable emotionally than a computer, desk, or other inanimate object sets an important precedent for the availability of special damages for animal-related lawsuits. In a handful of cases in Kentucky and California, claimants have recovered emotional damages for the negligent or reckless loss of their pets, setting a significant precedent. Recently, a judge in Washington state awarded $30,000 for the special or intrinsic value of a cat that was killed by a neighborhood dog, plus $15,000 for emotional distress, where the cat’s owner witnessed the attack. A few animal negligence cases in California have also included claims for loss of companionship, which can be particularly persuasive for service or therapy animals.
In light of this trend in Florida and other states, it is likely that courts will eventually recognize permanent injuries to and the loss of companion animals due to veterinary malpractice in a manner similar to medical malpractice and wrongful death actions involving humans. Doing so will elevate the legal status of animals under state and federal law to afford them the rights and protections they deserve.