If You Suspect Veterinary Malpractice...

by Kenneth D. Ross & Thomas Kanyock

ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENT requests for assistance that ALDF receives is from people whose companion animals have suffered injuries, or even death, and who fear that negligence by their veterinarian was the cause.

If you suspect that your companion animal was injured by veterinary malpractice, there are several things that you can do.

First, send a complaint to your state veterinary licensing board. This is a state agency, usually located in the capital, whose duties include the investigation of allegations of wrongdoing by veterinarians, including malpractice. State licensing boards have the power to suspend or remove a veterinarian's license, although this rarely happens.

Your complaint to a licensing board should be short, should fully identify all of the parties, and state the facts as you know them. Demand that the licensing board investigate your complaint and notify you of the results. A few weeks after you mail the complaint, call the board and confirm that they received it and have started the investigation. It is important that all licensing boards receive valid complaints and encouragement to monitor the practitioners in their state.

In addition, a complaint should be sent to the veterinary medical association in the county where the veterinarian practices. Again, demand an investigation and response. In some areas, the county veterinary association is not listed in the telephone directory. You can locate the mailing address by calling any veterinary clinic and asking for it.

A second approach to veterinary malpractice is hiring a lawyer to negotiate a settlement, or to bring a lawsuit.

The biggest problem with bringing a lawsuit is that, even if you win, you usually do not recover very much money. In this country, an animal is viewed as an item of personal property, and most courts limit recovery to the cost of replacing the companion animal with another animal. Because of the low potential for a large recovery, most lawyers are unable or unwilling to take veterinary malpractice cases on a contingency basis, and it is possible that the pet owner would invest more money in legal fees than can be recovered.

On the other hand, courts have recently begun to realize that a companion animal is unique and cannot simply be replaced. Courts are beginning to permit owners to recover the "reasonable sentimental value" of the companion animals to the individual owners, as long as the sentiment is not "excessive" or "maudlin." This can increase the potential recovery from a few hundred dollars, to perhaps a few thousand.

If you are not able to afford a lawyer, then consider going to small claims court, where you can represent yourself. In small claims court, recovery will be limited to "out-of-pocket" expenses. This includes only the money you lost already as a result of the malpractice, and does not include loss of your companion animal's sentimental value. In any lawsuit, you will still be required to secure expert testimony as to what act of negligence the veterinarian committed.

Finally, you must understand that neither complaining to the state veterinary licensing board, nor filing a lawsuit, will alleviate the sense of loss that you feel. You must allow yourself to grieve fully. Check with your local humane society to see whether they offer grief counseling sessions, or talk with other owners who have lost their beloved animals.

Kenneth Ross and Thomas Kanyock are attorneys in private practice in Chicago, Illinois and have handled numerous veterinary malpractice matters. Mr. Ross is on the ALDF Board of Directors.


THE BEST WAY TO PROTECT your companion animal is to know your rights and the veterinarian's duties. Here are some major points to remember:

1. Seek out a qualified, competent, and caring veterinarian.

2. Do not be reluctant to seek a second or even third opinion regarding the diagnosis of your companion animal. There are specialists for animals just as there are for humans.

3. Monitor your companion animal's stay at the hospital or clinic. Ask questions if you do not understand what services the veterinarian is tendering. Trust your common sense.

4. If you suspect malpractice, immediately seek an independent and confidential second opinion. If your animal has died. preserve the remains and quickly take the body to another veterinarian (preferably a college of veterinary medicine) for a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

5. Request all medical records regarding treatment, including x-rays if taken.

6. If you have received a second opinion that supports your concern about malpractice, immediately seek expert legal advice.

7. The Animal Legal Defense Fund offers a packet of information designed to assist those who suspect veterinary malpractice. In order to receive this packet, please call or email the national office and leave your name and mailing address.

If your companion animal has died, please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your friend. Many of us at ALDF have also experienced the loss of one of our animal companions. Click here for some compassionate advice for dealing with the loss of your friend.

Animal Legal Defense Fund
127 Fourth Street Petaluma, CA 94952
Phone (707) 769-7771; Fax (707) 769-0785