When a pet dies from malpractice
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
Changing attitudes about the value of animals is sparking legal debate throughout the country on just how much pet owners should be compensated for veterinary malpractice.
Philadelphia Rabbi David Siff adopted his two cats, Zorro and Chrystal, back in 2003.
"We adopted them when they were tiny infants. I mean, they looked like little rats. They were the cutest things."
At the time, David and his wife, Tanya, were struggling with infertility, and the cats, who had always been inseparable, quickly became part of the family.
"They met each other at the shelter, and the adoption agency, they made us adopt both of them together because they were such good playmates."
When Zorro suddenly fell ill last April, Tanya took him to see the vet. David was out of town, but heard about the visit later.
"He said it was a fur ball, which, when I heard this later, I thought was completely absurd, and I was in shock. But he treated the cat for a fur ball, and Zorro did not get better, he got worse."
Less than two days later, Zorro died of complications from a urinary tract infection. The couple was crushed.
"I was really upset because the vet completely misdiagnosed him, never took his temperature, never did any labs, nothing for his diagnosis. You know, really just gave him a cursory look over and gave him his diagnosis, and we couldn't help thinking that if he had diagnosed him correctly, maybe we could have saved his life, could have treated him earlier and saved his life."
David took the case to the state veterinary licensing board, but they declined to take any disciplinary action. So he looked into suing the vet–briefly.
"It turns out cats are considered chattel, and you cannot sue for more than the value, which would be about 50 bucks at a pet store. So there was just no recourse."
While Siff could sue for the medical bills he incurred trying to save Zorro's life, he can't recover non-economic damages, like pain and suffering, that could apply in human cases. But some advocates, like Animal Legal Defense Fund Attorney Matthew Leibman, are trying to change that.
"It's an archaic way of looking at animals, but the law is often slow to catch up to how social norms have changed."
But veterinarians are pushing back, saying a change allowing people to get non-economic damages is riddled with complications, and could actually end up hurting animals. Adrian Hochstadt is Assistant Director for State Regulatory Affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"It would bring so much uncertainty and endless litigation over some questions that may seem simple, but when you really think about it, you know, who's a claimant or a plaintiff? What is a pet? How do you measure the emotional bond of one person and his or her animal versus another?"
On a more practical level, Hochstadt says, reform of this kind would forever change the cost of caring for animals.
"If lawsuits are not predictable, we're hearing from insurance carriers that they may not even insure veterinarians in those markets. So, you know, that is a concern. Defensive medicine, which is estimated to be over 70 billion dollars a year in human medicine, we'd start seeing that, unfortunately."
Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer Matthew Leibman concedes allowing pain and suffering malpractice suits could drive up the cost of vet care, but he says it's not compelling enough to hold back change.
"If we really just saw animals as mere property, we wouldn't spend thousands and thousands of dollars to keep them alive. We would just discard them and get a new one at the shelter. So the veterinary industry certainly benefits from people having a connection, having a relationship and a bond with their animals. So I think it's only fair that when they cause that sort of suffering to someone who's lost a companion animal, that they compensate that person."
But Hochstadt says we shouldn't use human medical malpractice, one of the forces behind the high cost of health care, as a model for reforming veterinary care law.
So for now, David Siff is left – without recourse – to care for his remaining cat, Chrystal, who he says just isn't the same since Zorro died.
"She's much less interesting now. You know, she has nobody to play with. They used to go around. They used to have wrestling matches around the apartment, and now she just kind of sits around."