Dear Hoglawyer:

If my dog dies because of my veterinarian’s neglectful medical care, can I sue? From:  Mustlovedogs, NLR, AR.

The easy answer is – yes. You essentially have a contract with your veterinarian. You give them money to perform a professional service, which you expect to be done using due diligence. If their degree of care dips below a certain level, and because of their negligence your dog dies or is disabled, you could sue and probably win. The problem is what the proper damage award should be. In a medical malpractice lawsuit with people, if you suffer pain and suffering, permanent injury, or death, you or your survivors are entitled to compensatory and sometimes punitive damages. The amount of damages is based on the level of pain, the amount of disability, the diminished enjoyment of life, and lost wages. If I can’t work because my doctor cut the wrong part – I might be entitled to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars because of their negligence. With rare exceptions, dogs don’t have jobs for which they receive compensation.

So if my dog dies as a direct result of my vet’s negligence – what am I entitled to as a damage award? Not much. For example ,let’s say the vet gives my 10-year-old Great Dane too much anesthesia and she dies. In the eyes of the law, she is my property, and I am entitled to replacement value. How much is a 10 year old dog worth? You just have to look in the paper to see that most older dogs can be replaced for free. You could get reimbursed for medical expenses, but that’s of little solace. What about the emotional trauma of losing my faithful and loyal companion for ten years? As the law is currently written in Arkansas – you have little likelihood of receiving any type of compensation for this type of loss.

There have been exceptions to this general rule. In 2004, an Orange County, Calif., jury recognized the “special value” of a Labrador retriever and awarded the owner $39,000 in a malpractice suit.Without potential for huge awards, malpractice lawsuits are rarely undertaken. Because of the slim chance of a major lawsuit, most vets in the U.S.  pay only about $500 a year for malpractice insurance. I’m sure some special pets might merit a lawsuit such as service animals and show dogs, but such a lawsuit would be an exception inapplicable to most cases of neglect.  

The Hoglawyer