Veterinary Malpractice

You may sue a veterinarian who hurt your pet through incompetence or carelessness. But pursuing a vet malpractice lawsuit in court is rarely practical.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Finding and using a good veterinarian is a critical part of being a responsible pet owner. But not all vets are good, and even good vets can sometimes make mistakes or use poor judgment. Similar to parents who file medical malpractice claims against pediatricians, pet owners can file malpractice claims against veterinarians. In the past, veterinary malpractice lawsuits were rare, but more pet owners file these cases every year.

If your pet has been injured or killed after receiving care from a veterinary, here's what you need to know about pets and professional liability:

  • Vet malpractice lawsuits are similar to medical malpractice lawsuits.
  • You'll need to prove that the vet provided substandard care and caused your pet harm.
  • If you win your vet malpractice claim, you'll likely recover the cost of veterinarian treatment and potentially the market value or replacement value of your pet.
  • You may also receive some compensation for your emotional distress in some states.

What Is Malpractice?

Veterinarians, like doctors, are professionals who owe their patients a duty of care. The duty of care in veterinary medicine requires vets to treat animals with the same level of skill and attention as other vets in similar communities (called the "standard of care"). Vets don't have to be perfect. Not all errors are malpractice, and the fact that an animal's condition got worse after treatment doesn't necessarily mean that the vet is liable for malpractice.

To win a malpractice lawsuit, a pet owner must prove four things:

  • the vet had agreed to treat the animal
  • the vet failed to meet the standard of care for treating the animal
  • the animal was killed, injured, or became sicker as a result of the vet's incompetence or carelessness, and
  • as a result of the animal's injury, the animal's owner experienced some kind of harm (called "damages").

Veterinary technicians and assistants often handle hands-on medical procedures, like shots. Vets and vet hospitals may be liable for malpractice if they allow untrained or unsupervised employees to treat animals.

How to Prove Veterinary Malpractice

To prove that a vet's care fell short of professional standards, you'll first need to establish what those standards are in your community. The standard of care is usually what an average practitioner would do under similar circumstances. Vets who are certified as specialists are measured by what other competent specialists would do. Either way, you'll probably need to hire an expert witness—another veterinarian who can testify about what your vet should have done but failed to do.

It's not enough to show that your pet didn't get better after treatment. You must demonstrate that the vet's substandard care caused your animal harm. Here again, you'll probably need expert testimony.

Finally, you can't receive compensation for malpractice unless you, as the animal's owner, can demonstrate that you suffered real harm. Harm to the animal isn't enough. In most cases, harm to you doesn't include the emotional distress that comes with losing your dog or seeing your cat in pain.

How Much Is a Vet Malpractice Case Worth?

Many people treat their pets like members of the family, but courts value companion animals more like pieces of property. If you win your vet malpractice claim, you'll typically be able to recover the cost of all veterinarian care, including treatment that was necessary only because of the malpractice. And if your dog or cat died as a result of the malpractice, the court may award you the fair market value or replacement value of the pet. Beyond that, the rules for what a pet owner may recover in vet malpractice cases vary from state to state.

Putting a dollar value on a pet's death or injury is difficult, to say the least. For most pet owners, companion animals are worth much more than what it would cost to buy a similar dog or cat. In a few states, the law recognizes the special relationship between owners and pets by taking the animal's sentimental value into account if the anhas no market value. And under certain circumstances—usually, when the vet's conduct was particularly outrageous or intentional—some states allow pet owners to recover punitive damages or compensation for their emotional distress.

Learn more about how to value a pet-related injury claim.

Malpractice or Simple Negligence?

Not all mistakes that happen at the vet's office or in the pet hospital are related to a vet's professional competence and judgment. Sometimes pets are injured outside the realm of a veterinary practice. For example, if a vet was overseeing the loading of your horse into a horse trailer and failed to properly secure the horse, you might not be able to sue the vet for malpractice, but you probably could file a property damage claim based on simple negligence. Here are a few more examples to help illustrate the difference.

Actions that may constitute malpractice include:

  • misdiagnosing a dog's illness
  • prescribing the wrong course of treatment, or
  • committing a surgical error.

Here are examples that may be simple negligence:

  • leaving a dog on a heating pad too long
  • letting a dog escape through a door carelessly left open
  • forgetting to leave enough food or water, or
  • failing to turn over a dog's body to a funeral organization.

Veterinarians as well as their employees may be liable for simple negligence. No matter who was responsible, the standard in simple negligence lawsuits is what another reasonable person would do in similar circumstances, rather than what a similarly trained, competent professional would do.

Challenges of Winning a Vet Malpractice Lawsuit

Pet owners who sue their vets for malpractice face an uphill battle. Some of the biggest challenges include:

  • finding a qualified attorney whose attorneys' fees won't exceed the value of your claim
  • gathering the right evidence to prove your malpractice claim
  • getting an insurance adjuster (vets increasingly carry malpractice insurance) to take your claim seriously, and
  • convincing a judge or jury that the vet provided substandard care.

Using Small Claims Court for Vet Malpractice

You might be able to sue your vet in small claims court. But this is only an option if you're claim meets the small claims dollar limit in your state.

The procedures in small claims court are simpler, less expensive, and don't involve lawyers. Evidence rules are less strict than in regular court. Letters and similar kinds of evidence are admissible. For example, if you take your dog to an out-of-town vet and get a written second opinion, the out-of-town vet won't have to show up at your court hearing in person to testify. In some states, including California, testimony can even be taken over the phone.

Deadlines for Filing a Vet Malpractice Lawsuit

In most states, both malpractice and simple negligence cases must be filed within one to three years of the injury. If you're in settlement negotiations with the insurance company, don't wait until the last minute to file a lawsuit. If talks stall and you miss the deadline, you're out of luck.

Each state has its own time limit, called the "statute of limitation." The deadline to file a vet malpractice suit may be different from the deadline to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. When in doubt, talk to a lawyer. Even if you've missed the legal deadline, an attorney can explain whether your situation qualifies for an exception to the limit. For example, if you didn't discover your pet's injury right away, your deadline to file a lawsuit may be extended.

If you want to sue a government agency—for example, if the vet at a city-run clinic neutered a dog but bungled the surgery—you usually have to file an administrative claim against the government first (often within about 100 days). Then you have to wait until the claim is denied before you can file a lawsuit. Here again, a lawyer can explain the procedures and help you protect your rights.

Talk to a Lawyer

If your pet has been harmed by a vet, you're probably heartbroken and angry. In the past, you may not have been able to get compensation for your loss, but the law in this area is changing.

You may be able to file a claim yourself with the vet's insurance company or in small claims court. But if vet bills are racking up and you have questions about your rights, talk to a personal injury lawyer. A lawyer, especially one who specializes in animal law, can help you figure out whether you have a vet malpractice claim and how much your claim might be worth.

Learn more about working with a lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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