By Dr. Andrew Jones
Nina Penteado raised her dog, Colombo, a shepherd cross breed as a puppy, having him as her loyal companion for 11 years.
She had to have him euthanized following a veterinary visit gone wrong, and subsequently sued Rosedale Animal Hospital, and two of its veterinarians in small claims court for $25,000, the maximum allowed.
She claimed in court documents that veterinarian Dr. Ian Sandler gave Colombo unnecessary vaccinations without her consent, which led to Colombo having to be euthanized. . “The defendants fell below the average competent standards under the circumstances,” a statement of claim says.
Not surprisingly the veterinary hospital and the veterinary defendants in the case denied any wrongdoing. “The defendants did not cause or contribute to Colombo’s worsening health,” they say in their statement of defence.
The veterinarian claims that this 11 year old dog was a ‘year overdue for vaccines’, and vaccinated, in spite of Ms Penteado’s desire to only have an exam. Colombo was sick at the time of the visit, with chronic diarrhea, yet given the full range of “shots”— distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza, Bordetella, as well as rabies.
After the visit, Colombo’s condition deteriorated, Colombo was having trouble walking, was panting, had a thick, gelatinous drool, and had lost six to seven pounds. He was eventually referred by another veterinarian to an emergency clinic where he was diagnosed with sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome and pneumonia. She opted to euthanize him.
Ms Penteado spent over $7000 following the first veterinary visit, but unfortunately had her claim in Canadian court denied, as in Canada, all animals are considered “chattel,” or property, thereby limiting damage awards to the economic value of the animal.
But times are changing.
In California, the Plotnik family in Laguna Niguel had been harassed for years by their neighbors, the Meihaus family, suffering insults, death threats and other offensive behavior.
The Plotnik’s claimed that one of their neighbors had smashed their dog, Romeo, with a baseball bat, causing the dog to require surgery.
The jury sided with the Plotniks and awarded them $430,000, which included emotional damages for Romeo’s injuries.
The award was eventually lowered to $160,000, plus $93,000 in attorney fees. The defendants filed an appeal on the award for emotional distress caused by the attack on the family dog, but this was upheld. The Meihaus family had to pay for Romeo’s surgery as well.
We have long held our dogs and cats as family members, and the veterinary community would like to us to treat ( and pay veterinary fees), accordingly.
They just don’t want lawsuits similar to Colombo’s to be successful.
In the United States there are felony anticruelty laws in all 50 states. These carry fines up to $125,000 in fines and 10 years in prison for anyone who abuses animals.
A landmark case involved the 2004 ruling in which $39,000 was awarded to a pet owner for veterinary malpractice following the death of his dog in Los Angeles. At the time to the AVMA ( American Veterinary Medical Association) stated their concern that “personhood” for dogs and cats could fill the courts, make veterinary care increasingly expensive, and drive veterinarians out of business.
Ten years later we are seeing rapidly rising veterinary fees, but not due to court costs. Vets see that people are increasingly willing to spend more on their pets, so they now can offer an expanse of expensive diagnostic tests (ie MRI’s), and charge accordingly. At the same time the number of new veterinary graduates has outpaced veterinary jobs, increasing competition, and ultimately driving some veterinarians out of business.
But the legal warning sound has come again…
Mark Cushing of the Animal Policy Group says this: Make no mistake: the costs of veterinary care will go up if a court turns the common law doctrine on its head and removes the barrier to non-economic damages anchored in the legal concept of pets as personal property. And if costs go up, does anyone really believe that access to pet healthcare will not be affected?
Veterinary associations across North America are opposing legislation that would reclassify owners as “guardians”. They have also been involved in court cases against veterinarians in order to limit damages for the loss of a pet.
Should the law change?
Clearly yes, for our pets are integral, valued parts of most people’s family, and are treated accordingly.
I can speak from personal experience-my pets are part of my family, and the emotional distress of losing a pet has been immense.
There are clearly much more than ‘property’, and should be recognized in the eyes of the law as such.
In spite of what many in the veterinary community think, it is time for change.
Dr Andrew Jones, DVM
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