Kristina Bergsten

A Primer on Veterinary Malpractice

Taking your furry family member to the veterinarian can be a scary experience. Your pet is sick or hurting and you want to trust the medically trained person or persons handling your pet’s life.

But sometimes, things go wrong. Sometimes, your pet dies in the “care” of veterinarians. Sometimes your pet is released to you more injured or more sick than when you handed him or her over to the vet.

Unfortunately, this happens frequently and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where things “went wrong.” And your poor furry friend cannot speak to let us know what happened.

But that’s where our experienced animal rights lawyers come into the picture. We have a lot of experience dealing with veterinary malpractice and know how to read through the medical jargon to get to the bottom of where things went wrong with your pet’s care.

The critical issue then becomes: does it make financial sense to pursue a veterinary malpractice action against your veterinarian?

Typically, unless your veterinary bills are very high, it does not make financial sense to pursue a veterinary malpractice action. This is because veterinary malpractice actions are very costly to pursue due to the complexity of the Complaint, and the need to get a veterinarian to sign an affidavit, known as a Certificate of Review, stating that the Defendant-Veterinarian deviated from the normal standard of care a veterinarian would have used in that situation. After that, the veterinarian’s insurance company will respond and likely file many motions to get the case dismissed or thrown out. If the Complaint survives these motions, there is complicated medical discovery to go through, preparation of expert witnesses, depositions, and various hearings before Trial.

The unfortunate difference between medical malpractice and veterinary malpractice is that there is no recovery for emotional distress damages or pain and suffering. Your animal cannot get emotional distress, and neither can you. Your animal cannot get pain and suffering, and neither can you. This is because animals are considered property under Colorado law, not the family members we all know our pets to be. Therefore, because there is no familial relation, and because Colorado views them no different from a couch, Colorado law does not permit recovery of emotional distress damages or pain and suffering because, under the law, your pet’s suffering exists as much as a couch’s suffering.

While I personally disagree with that part of the law and know that animals feel pain and emotion just as humans do, Colorado law has not caught up to view animals as sentient (i.e., “thinking”) beings. This is, in my opinion, a travesty in the animal law world and should be changed. But that requires brave judges to make changes in the law; or brave legislators willing to do what’s right, not what lobbyists are paying them to do.

A human suing for veterinary malpractice cannot get emotional distress damages related to the heartache of losing one’s pet or the extreme stress related to the veterinary debacle itself because, as previously stated, the law views pets no differently than couches. So, for example, if someone tore your couch up and you were distraught because your couch was torn up, the Court would not recognize your emotional distress damages because the couch is a piece of property and has no intrinsic value (i.e., no value in and of itself) and therefore it can easily be replaced.

Without emotional distress or pain and suffering damages, plaintiffs suing veterinarians are only able to recover (1) the value of the pet, (2) the value of the services rendered, or (3) the value of the pet and the value of the services rendered. Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, lost wages are recoverable if the veterinary services interfered with someone’s work. Or, in very extreme cases of negligent conduct, punitive damages are possible to recover, but the burden of proof is very high.

If it does not make financial sense to sue a veterinarian, I counsel clients to file a complaint against the veterinarian via the Department of Regulatory Agencies.

Filing a complaint will open an investigation into the veterinarian’s conduct and may result in discipline, fines, or even suspension of the veterinarian’s license. This course of action alerts the Veterinary Board of this veterinarian’s conduct and helps to prevent further incidents from happening in the future.

An animal attorney can also write a demand letter to the veterinarian’s insurance company to recover costs and sometimes a little extra out of pocket costs. So, it is always worth giving us a call to see how we can help you.

That said, changing the law also takes brave animal owners who are willing to challenge the status quo and take their cases to court. Our animal attorneys are prepared with multitudes of creative legal arguments to make the case for changed laws in Colorado and we are ready and excited to work for client who is ready to vindicate their pet to the fullest extent.

Call us today to see if our Colorado animal attorneys can help you in your particular situation.

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