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 occasionally be careless or use poor judgment. When that happens, the animal’s owner may sue the vet for malpractice. Historically, veterinary malpractice lawsuits have been relatively rare, but more pet owners file these cases every year.
Still, pet owners who sue their vets for malpractice face serious challenges. By the time you factor in attorneys’ fees and all the other expenses, the cost of going to court will probably exceed the amount of any award you’ll receive. If the vet carries malpractice insurance (which is increasingly common), you may still get compensation by filing a claim with the insurance company and negotiating an out-of-court settlement. But you'll still need evidence of malpractice.
The law in veterinary malpractice pretty much follows the law for medical malpractice cases. Malpractice happens when a veterinarian harms an animal because of incompetence, a mistake in judgment, or a particular kind of carelessness. But not all medical 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. In order to win a malpractice lawsuit, a pet owner must prove four things:
In order to prove that a vet’s care fell short of professional standards, you first need to show what those standards are. That generally means what an average practitioner would do under similar circumstances. Vets who are certified as specialists are held to a higher professional standard; the measuring stick is 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 didn’t do.
It’s not enough to show that your pet didn’t get better—or even got worse—after treatment. You must demonstrate that the vet’s subpar actions or decisions caused the animal’s current condition. 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. And in most cases, that harm doesn’t include the emotional distress that comes with losing your dog or seeing your cat in pain (more on that below).
If you’ve been able to prove the elements of malpractice, you should be able to collect the cost of any additional medical treatment that was necessary because of the original vet’s incompetence or carelessness. And if your dog or cat died as a result of the malpractice, the court may award you the market or replacement value of the pet—what it would cost to buy an animal of the same breed, age, condition, and training. Beyond that, the rules for what a pet owner may recover in vet malpractice cases vary from state to state, and sometimes from court to court within the same state.
Putting a dollar value on a pet’s death or injury is difficult, to say the least. For most pet owners, their companion animals are worth much more than what it would cost to buy a similar dog or cat. In a few states, courts (or occasionally the laws) recognize this by taking the animal’s sentimental value into account if it has no market value. And under certain circumstances—generally if the vet’s conduct was particularly outrageous or intentional—some states allow pet owners to recover punitive damages and/or compensation for their emotional distress. (See more details on compensating owners for injury to their pets.)
Not all mistakes that happen at the vet’s office or in the pet hospital are related to a veterinarian’s professional competence and judgment (or lack thereof). Pets may be injured as a result of simple negligence, such as careless handling of an animal before or after treatment. Some examples may help illustrate the difference. Actions that may constitute malpractice include:
Here are some that may be simple negligence:
Veterinarians as well as their employees may be liable for negligence. No matter who was responsible, the standard in negligence lawsuits is what another reasonable person would do in similar circumstances, rather than professional competence.
Pet owners aren’t limited to a negligence lawsuit just because their animals were injured by the other employees in the vet’s office or hospital. Veterinary technicians and assistants are often responsible for much of the hands-on medical procedures, and their employers (the vets or hospitals) may be liable for malpractice if they allow untrained or unsupervised employees treat animals.
You might be able to sue your vet in small claims court. But this is only an option if you aren’t seeking compensation that exceeds 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 much less strict than in regular court. Letters and similar kinds of evidence are admissible. If you can take the dog to an out-of-town vet and get a written second opinion, the 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. And it may be enough simply to report that another veterinarian quickly diagnosed or fixed a condition that baffled the veterinarian who's being sued.
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.
You can look up your state's law (usually called the “statute of limitations”). But note that these limitations periods may be different for veterinary malpractice than for medical malpractice, or they may not be explicitly mentioned in the statutes. When in doubt, talk to a lawyer. Even if you’ve missed the legal deadline, an attorney who’s experienced in this area can explain whether your situation qualifies for an exception of extension of the time to file (such as when you didn’t discover the injury right away).
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 a 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.