Friday, February 10, 2006

How much is your pet worth?

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.

Less care?

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.”



Alex W. said...

While I agree that losing a pet or having a pet go through serious health problems is a terrible thing to have to deal with, I believe nothing good can come from suing vets. I love my animals and would do anything that I could for them if they were sick or injured. Last November my dog suddenly died from heart complications. He was completely healthy on Friday, and by Sunday evening he was dead. It was one of the hardest things I had to deal with, just due to the fact that it was so sudden; but I knew that the doctor did everything he could. Since the vet did everything he possible could, I knew that this was just his destiny and there is nothing else I could change. But if I knew it was something the vet had caused, or he did something wrong then I would have no problem filing a law suit.

The problem is that there are people out there that would take advantage of these lawsuits. Someone could easily go and adopt a sick animal from the pound, take it to the vet and then blame the vet for problems and ‘emotional distress’. While I like to think that people have enough morals and respect for animals not to do such a horrific thing, I know it is just not like that. There are always going to be people out there doing anything the can to get some money, even if it has to hurt an animal, or even people around them. If this were to happen the vet industry would then change to what the current health care system is now. It was be so expensive to help your animals that most people would either have to go into debt to help them, start getting insurance for their animals or put them asleep. The other downside would be if it became the complete opposite and laws were passed to limit someone’s ability to sue a vet. The problem is finding a medium that helps those that deserve it, and keep those away that are just abusing the system.

scottk said...

Losing a pet is more than just a terrible thing to deal with. It is the loss of a family member and carries the same emotional tragedy to many of us. While this story may be lengthy, I feel it necessary to adequately answer for the feelings that many of us may share and also to substantiate the reason that vets should be held legally responsible for their actions.

We were not as fortunate as Alex in the fact that he feels that his vet did everything possible. We find ourselves victim to the exact opposite scenario.

Our cat, Princess, became ill so we took her to the vet (Sat. January 6, 2007) that we had been using for 2 years. Our vet told us that Princess needed surgery to remove an inflamed organ or she would die. We inquired as to the nature of the surgery, the dangers involved, as well as the outlook for success.

We were told that even though Princess would die without the surgery, that the surgery itself would correct the problem and make her healthy again. We were also told that the operation would only take 45 minutes to an hour and that she would be kept overnight for rest and observation and returned to us the next day.

The vet informed us that he had been performing surgeries for nearly 30 years and lead us to believe that the surgery would be a simple procedure. We felt that with what we had been told, that we could feel confident of a positive outcome. We therefore scheduled the surgery for Mon. January 8, 2007.

Over the weekend we gave Princess the extra love that we felt she needed to be strong for her surgery. We also explained the situation to our 10-year-old daughter. We did this, as we ourselves, were concerned and nervous.

On Monday we committed to the surgery and our tragedy began.

We took Princess to the vet's office at approximately 8:45, gave her a hug and kiss and handed her to the vet. Obviously at this point we were very concerned, emotional and simply wanted the best care for our beloved Princess.

The vet told us that she was in good hands and that her blood tests indicated that everything looked "very positive". He also informed us that he would contact us immediately after the surgery (in which he stated was beginning immediately) to give us an update.

By 11am (2 hours from the time that we were told the surgery would begin) we had not heard from the vet so we decided to contact him. When the vet answered the phone, we were informed that the surgery was completed and that she was beginning to wake up and respond.

The vet also informed us that he did not believe that the organ that was removed was infected. His statement to us was that "the organ did not smell". Definitely not a medical statement/term. Additionally he informed us that the prognosis was good and that the surgery went well.

At that point, my wife sent an email (as we promised) to our daughter’s teacher to inform our daughter that Princess was doing well and coming home. Being lead to believe that Princess was safe and in recovery, my wife and I went to work to pass the remainder of the day thinking that at 5:00 we would stop in the vet's office to visit Princess.

At about 2:15, I received a call from the vet. He informed me that Princess had taken a turn for the worse and was not clotting correctly. When I inquired further about this, he stated that she may "just be a bleeder" (hardly a medical explanation) and that he could not have known. When I inquired as to where the bleeding was occurring, he told me he "thought" it was externally.

My next obvious question was what was being done and what needed to be done to correct the situation. It was then that I was told that he had already given Princess a blood transfusion and could do no more for her.

He told me that she needed to be transferred to another facility. I inquired as to how and where she needed to be transferred, only to be told that we needed to pick her up and transfer her ourselves.

I then inquired as to where we would take her and did not get a definitive answer. The vet then suggested 2 facilities, both of which were nearly 30 miles away with commute times that could exceed an hour. It was at that point I told the vet that I needed to contact my wife and we would be there very shortly.

Given that my wife was closer to the vet’s office, she arrived first (within 15 minutes of the vet's initial contact to me at 2:15). While enroot, I contacted my wife to see if she had arrived at the vet's office. She had already arrived (approximately 2:30) and was speaking with the vet.

At that point the vet still had not made a decision, nor appropriations (contacting an emergency facility, preparing Princess for transport etc.) and was still suggesting that we take her to one of the facilities he had mentioned earlier.

I felt that the vet was being far to complacent for the situation at hand and told my wife to insist on a closer facility and that the vet should have Princess ready for transport by the time I arrived.

When I arrived (approximately 2:45) at the vet's office I found that a more local (approximately 4 miles, 15 minutes away) had been identified, but only after my wife's insistence.

While we now had a destination; Princess had not yet been prepared for transport. Nor had the vet provided the emergency facility with the medical records and information that they would need to assist us. Additionally, the vet seemed more interested in informing us that he made no mistakes and stated that he wanted "this one to make it". He also was being obstinate that Princess was not bleeding internally and then repeated “she is just a bleeder”.

At that point I inquired if we had adequate time to make it to the emergency facility and was given an answer that indicated that we had no worry from a time perspective. I obviously did not trust that answer and pushed to expedite our departure.

I also found myself having to ask the vet if he at least had a box or cage or some method in which we could carry Princess. The vet stated that he would provide a cage and did so with a smile on his face as if he were providing us with the best accommodations. I drew the sense that he was already trying to cover up for mistakes.

When Princess was brought to us in the cage, barely living, he made a comment on how he even put a blanket on her and again seemed to be more concerned on persuading us that he did no wrong. At that point we left for the emergency facility.

While enroot, I contacted the ER to make sure that they were waiting for us. My wife held Princess, in her cage and watched to ensure that she was at least breathing. As we proceeded to the emergency facility we found that her breathing was diminishing. Upon arrival at the emergency facility, we were met at the door and Princess was rushed in.

Within the next 30 minutes the ER vet came to us and informed us that when Princess came into her care, that she had already stopped breathing and was dieing. She also informed us that she was able to bring her back to life and that she was alive but not stable.

Had we followed our vets suggestion of ER facitlities, Princess would have died in the car.

At that point the ER vet asked us questions so that she could be better informed of the situation. She informed us that she doubted that Princess's bleeding problem was external, but rather internal. Additionally, she informed us that if the bleeding were internal, that a second surgery and another blood transfusion would be needed. We were also told that her chances of survival were 30% at best. At that point we told the ER vet to do whatever necessary to save Princess.

As a result Princess had a second surgery (at approximately 6:00) and several points of internal bleeding were found. Princess survived the surgery. The staff at the ER asked us to visit her as they felt it may help Princess to recover by seeing or hearing us. We went to visit her in recovery (approximately 7:30 - 8:00) after the surgery. While we were visiting Princess her body temperature went up 5 degrees, she kneaded her paws as she always did at home making us feel that we had hope. She seemed responsive when we talked to her, pet her and told her we loved her.

After our visit, the staff in the ER told us we should go home, let Princess rest and that they would keep us informed. We then left (approximately 8:30 9:00) we picked up our daughter at our friends house and informed her that the earlier email that she received, had itself, taken a different turn. We were now in the position of explaining the fact that Princess may not come home.

Between 9:30 and 10:00 we received a call from the emergency facility informing us that Princess was not recovering nor responding from the surgery as expected. We were told that her reflexes were not conducive of normal brain functionality. We rushed to the ER to say a final goodbye to her. The rest is too hard for me to write.

After reading this story, I hope that you can derive that our vet had demonstrated negligence, complacency and a complete lack of professionalism. Hopefully you also see that the emergency facility acted with complete professionalism, compassion and attention to detail.

It is now February 3, 2007 and we still grieve the loss of Princess. Since that day we have started to pursue an answer as to how a surgery that should have been successful ended in such tragedy.

We have inquired with the ER vet, as well as a 3rd party vet to obtain a better understanding of what happened. The general consensus was that the vet performing the initial surgery did not demonstrate the caution that he should have for this type of operation.

The opinion of the ER and 3rd party vet is that our vet should have been more cautious and cognoscente of the dangers associated with this type of surgery.

Both stated that they would have handled the situation differently and with more preparedness, less hurried and more observant of the potential issues.

The potential issues included being aware that an inflamed organ causes larger, more inflamed blood vessels, thus leading to the possible need to close these vessels during surgery. This is something that our vet either did not know of, did not do or did so inadequately. As a result our beloved Princess lost her life.

We also found that the ER vet had to request our vet to save the organ for biopsy. This is apparently standard procedure in a case such as this. Our vet made no mention of this until we arrived to pick up Princess for transport to the ER. As we were preparing for transport, our Vet did inform us that he had not done this.

We have also found out that one of the possible reasons that Princess was unable to clot correctly could be due to a poison in the body. This poison could have very well been passed from an infected organ. It seems apparent that our vet did not take this into consideration when performing the initial surgery.

Additionally, we were informed that our vet handled his communications to us very poorly throughout the entire situation.

As painful as all of this knowledge has become to us, we now know that our vets actions, or lack there of, directly attributed to the loss of Princess.

We also feel that had either the ER or 3rd party vet performed the initial surgery, that Princess would be with us now.

As Americans, we push for human civil rights, globally. We fight for the rights of animals and are offended by cruel treatment to animals. We are one of the wealthiest countries on this planet and have chosen to take pets into our homes and make them members of our families. A majority of us that do so feel that our pets deserve the same care, legal rights and opportunity to live happy lives as we have available to us. To me that means that when my pet goes to the doctor, they MUST be treated as I would. No exceptions.

While I do not condone those who try to turn the loss of a pet into financial gain, I do feel that vets need to be held responsible for their actions. Vets carry malpractice insurance just as human doctors do. They pay premiums for this insurance. As with any other type of insurance, their rates will only increase with the increase in claims that result in loss due to a decision against them.

From what I have learned, most malpractice suits against vets go through even more challenges from the insurance company and legal system as that of human malpractice. To me, that means that the chances of a frivolous lawsuit, or that of a person seeking simple financial gain is negligible. The small amount of money to be gained from such a lawsuit is not worth the pain, time, effort nor cost of the lawsuit itself.

In my opinion, filing a malpractice suit against a vet should be for the purpose of removing the vet from his practice so that no others will suffer tragedy to a loved one. Should the vet be found guilty of malpractice, he should also be held responsible for the re-payment of financial damages incurred by the family.

In our case, we took Princess to an ER facility in attempt to do everything possible to save her. The ER facility spent several hours of hard compassionate work to do everything they could. This resulted in a bill to us in the thousands of dollars. It is unfair to our family to have to suffer the loss of a loved one and pay for it financially.

The day after our loss we received a sympathy card from the ER facility. We have not seen ANY correspondence (Phone call of inquiry or explanation, sympathy card, nor a bill) from our vet. That indicates that our vet must have known of his dire mistakes and is attempting to lay low to avoid repercussions.

The sad truth is the fact that in most states, pets are still considered as possessions rather than that of valued life and family members. This allows for vets to provide less than professional and adequate care for our loved ones with little repercussion of faulty service. Families are therefore forced with the cost of loss, both emotionally and financially, as the vets continue to go about their practice.

The laws regarding pets needs to be changed to hold vets responsible for their actions. Pets are lives that are loved by families, the law should be changed to reflect this. The end result should be that if a vet performs a dysfunctional surgery or any other services that result in the loss of life they should be punished.

My guess is that if that were the case, the majority of vets would execute more cautiously to avoid punitive damages. This would result in better care for our beloved pets, and an overall reduction in the loss of life from poor veterinary service.

As for my family, we will be pursuing the vet to ensure that justice is served and in hopes that no other family suffers our tragedy. We do this for life, not money. Our hope is that by doing so the laws will eventually change and our pets will receive the recognition that they deserve. I for one am glad that there are attorneys such as Amy Breyer that are willing to help in this cause.

cbanford said...

I brought be baby into the Pet Emergency room because she was having trouble breathing an d walking. She was not eatimg as usual and had begun to lose weight, and she was running a fever. They ran blood work on her and the test results came back as completely normal, as told to me by the Vet on staff. His diagnosis was "possibly old dogs disease?, menengitus?, or encephilitus. She was given two shots and antibiotics to be taken at home.That was on 9/24/07. On 9/28/07, I brought her back to the emergency room. This time no test were run on her, she was given another shot of antibiotics and more pills to take at home. This time his diagnosis was possibly brain tumor?, Menengitus?, or Encephilitus. I was never told to give anything for the fever. By Monday afternoon, Joi was unable to walk. Earlier that day, I had called a Vet's office for a second opinion. They gave me an appointment for the next day. That was October 2,2007, the day my baby had to be put to sleep. The doctor checked her with such compassion and care, I felt as though he was examining my human child. The news was devaststing. She had a funfus called Blastomycosis. It began in her lungs, worked it's way into her chest, and her circulatory system. Joi was going blind, her bones were infected, and she had pneumonia. The disease had taken over her in such that even withthe treatment she only had a 10-25 percent chance of survival. The blindness was not reversible. She was suffereing and had suffered enough. I kept asking the emergency room doctor if she was suffering because I did not want her to suffer. He assured me that she wasn't but that with the tumor she would be harder to take care of. My baby kept getting worse and it was killing me not knowing what was hurting her. She is gone, I feel lost and empty without her. I made the painful decision to let her go. I couldn't stand watching her fall in her own urine and falling down the bach door steps and seeing her struggle to walk. I could see her wanting to do all the things she was used to doing and wondering why she couldn't control her body. It was like watching a person with M.S. who had their mind but could no longer control their body. I miss her so much, I brought her home and buried her in her favorite spot in the back yard, right under the pecan tree. The first six pecans fell this year the next day, right on her grave. I visit her grave before I go to work and when Icome home. I have cried everyday for the past 4 weeks. I am so emotionally drained, it seems like this pain will never go away. What I miss most of all about her is having her alive. Just knowing that she was alive even if she was in the back yard or in the bed with me, by the bed, in my son's room, or where ever she was, She was alive! I don't know if the doctor was incompetent or just didn't care, either way it goes, he did not give my Joi the proper care. I want him to pay for his neglegence, one way or another!