NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE EXTENDING TO PETS

March 17, 2005

In a reflection of the special place that pets have come to hold in Americans' hearts, U.S. courts are bucking centuries of legal decisions that have defined animals as property.

In recent years, courts in New York, Maryland and Texas have resolved custody disputes involving pets by deciding what's best for the pet. Judges in 25 states have administered financial trusts set up in pets' names. And there has been another turn in animal law: Courts have begun to take claims of veterinary malpractice seriously.

  • Since 1997, courts in Kentucky and California have awarded damages to pet owners for loss of companionship, emotional distress and other factors that go beyond the way courts have long assessed animals' worth: by their market value.
  • Veterinary malpractice cases have not involved the staggering sums that can be associated with claims against doctors who treat humans; the largest judgment in favor of a pet owner has been $39,000, which a jury in Orange County, Calif., awarded last year to Marc Bluestone.

Two other recent decisions stand out:

  • In 1997, a Kentucky jury awarded $15,000 to the owner of a German shepherd who bled to death after surgery; the jury was instructed that the dog could have an intrinsic value beyond its market value, much like an heirloom.
  • In 2000, a judge in Costa Mesa, Calif., awarded almost $28,000 in general and other damages to a woman whose Rottweiler had to have its teeth capped after a bungled dental surgery.

Richard Cupp, a Pepperdine University law professor, says that if courts routinely start to award emotional damages to pet owners, veterinary care will cost more, leading to "more suffering" among pets because "fewer pets will get sent to the vet."

Source: Laura Parker, "When pets die at the vet, grieving owners call lawyers: Courts taking notice of medical malpractice suits," USA Today, March 15, 2005.

 

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