Cases of owners suing vets for emotional distress and malpractice drawing lots of attention
By Mike Riopell
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Monday, February 06, 2006
To Jim Noyes, hurting his dog is like hurting one of his family members.
He adopted the black Labrador and German shepherd mixed-breed dog, Missy, when he lived in St. Charles several years ago.
Missy has leg problems, Noyes said, and several surgeries trying to repair them ended disastrously. The dog eventually lost her left hind leg.
Noyes, who now lives in Prairie Grove near Crystal Lake, said Missy is confined to the kitchen. The large, old dog can’t hobble very far.
He will go to trial in May with the Buffalo Grove veterinarian who performed the procedures, trying to recoup money he spent on veterinary bills.
But because Noyes said he feels a special tie to Missy, he and his wife also are seeking more than $50,000 in damages to cover the emotional distress the dog’s suffering caused them.
“It was incredibly stressful seeing her suffer so much,” he said. “It certainly created a tremendous amount of pain and stress in our lives.”
The notion of Noyes and other pet owners winning large malpractice awards is also causing discomfort among veterinarians.
They fear that if such awards become common, basic veterinary care will become too expensive for average people.
Large veterinary malpractice awards have been handed out several times in the last decade. In those cases, owners have received more than $30,000 for the tragic loss of a pet.
Some veterinarians say if more people are successful in recovering money beyond the veterinary bills, the cost of basic animal care may skyrocket.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has studied the issue at length and has made materials available to state organizations in case they need to fight local legislation that calls for increased awards.
Illinois veterinary leaders say they’re closely watching the situation here, although no trends have developed.
American Veterinary Medical Association spokesman Adrian Hochstadt said the special bond between pet and owner is undeniable, but allowing for more lawsuits will cause problems for everyone.
“A lot of bad things are likely to happen, none of which will benefit animals,” he said.
More awards will lead to higher malpractice insurance rates for veterinarians, he added. Now, a typical vet pays about $300 a year for insurance.
Premium costs for vets are typically low because malpractice cases are rare and awards are small.
As the universally small lawsuit awards indicate, courts widely regard pets as property, not family. So if they’re hurt in cases of malpractice, owners usually can recover money only to cover the pet’s market value.
A young, purebred puppy would be worth more than an aging mutt, much in the same way a new car is worth more than a well-worn clunker — no matter its sentimental value to the owner.
If lawsuits become more common, Hochstadt said, that added cost will be passed on to pet owners who might choose not to pay it.
“Unlike human medicine, the service is much more elastic,” he said.
Money might not be an object when someone is seeking medical care for a sick family member, but most people have a limit to how much they’ll spend on a pet.
And, people are already spending more to care for their pets these days.
Allan Paul, an associate dean at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, says advances in animal care have followed similar rates as those in humans. For example, pets can be treated for cancer with chemotherapy and receive heart transplants.
Those higher prices could also be a driving motivation behind lawsuits. When people pay more for a service, the stakes are almost certainly higher.
A sonogram for a pet could cost up to $200. Having a dog’s spleen removed could cost $300.
Today, people are more likely to pay for those complex procedures, especially in wealthy areas like Chicago’s suburbs.
Sandy Wisniewski said that wasn’t how it was when she was growing up.
“You didn’t have your dog’s teeth cleaned unless they were falling out,” said Wisniewski, president of Libertyville’s Animal Education and Rescue.
Just like people
When vets say increased insurance rates could make medical care hard to afford, their argument echoes those made in the debate over human malpractice that has raged in Illinois in recent years.
Last spring, Illinois doctors were successful in pushing for legislation that limits how much victims can recover in cases of human malpractice.
Echoing trial lawyers from the debate over humans, Chicago lawyer Amy Breyer, who specializes in animal law and is representing the Noyes family, said veterinary insurance is low enough that increased costs would be manageable.
She hopes compensation for distressed owners becomes more common.
That can happen, she said, if owners stick with it.
“This is different nowadays because clients come in willing to pay money to hire savvy lawyers to litigate these cases as forcefully as they would for any other interest,” Breyer said. “At the very least, they’re getting more attention because they’re being litigated more aggressively.”
That could be good news for pet owners who lose the companionship of man’s best friend at the hands of someone who was supposed to help.
“When they’re sick, we take them to the doctor,” Noyes said. “We treat them absolutely as family.”