Veterinary malpractice refers to situations where a veterinarian fails to meet the reasonable standard of care when providing healthcare to an animal as well as causing a preventable injury. Veterinary malpractice law tends to be similar to the law in medical malpractice cases.
Malpractice occurs when a veterinarian falls below the normal standard of care which in turn causes an injury to an animal. The standard of care for veterinarians just like other professionals is the normal practices and protocols in the field which the practitioners are supposed to follow.
It is also the level of care which a veterinarian of ordinary skills and experience is supposed to exercise. A veterinarian can fall below the expected standard of care for different reasons such as incompetence, a mistake in judgment or a different kind of carelessness. However, to prevail in a malpractice lawsuit, a pet owner has to prove the following four elements:
- The veterinarian took on the responsibility to treat your pet;
- The veterinarian failed to meet the professional standards of care;
- The pet was killed, injured or became sicker because of the veterinarian’s incompetence, mistake in judgment or carelessness; and
- Because of the injury, the pet owner experienced some kind of harm such as economic loss or emotional distress.
What is the Difference Between Malpractice and Simple Negligence?
There is a difference between malpractice and simple negligence and a mistake made by a vet is not always based on malpractice. Malpractice is based on the level of a vet’s professional competence or judgment and it can include actions such as:
- Improperly diagnosing a dog’s illness;
- Prescribing the wrong type of treatment; and/or
- Stopping the treatment prematurely.
However, simple negligence is based on carelessly handling the animal before or after treatment and it is not based on professional expertise. The standard in a negligence lawsuit is what another reasonable individual would do in similar circumstances rather than professional competence. Some examples of simple negligence are:
- Forgetting to leave enough food or water for the animal under care; and/or
- Letting the animal escape through a door which was carelessly left open.
Both veterinarians and their employees can be held liable for negligence. It is also possible that a veterinarian or a hospital can be held liable for malpractice because of the actions of their employees.
This is because the technicians and assistants at a veterinarian’s office are often responsible for a lot of the hands-on medical procedures and the vets or the hospitals can be held liable for malpractice if they let untrained or unsupervised employees treat the animals.
Historically, veterinary malpractice suits have been rare but they are becoming more common as pet owners file more of these cases every year. If you can prove that your pet died because of malpractice, then a court may award you the market or replacement value of pet. This is based on what it would cost to buy an animal of the same breed, age, condition and training.
Also, for most pet owners, their pets have a great deal of sentimental value and just receiving monetary compensation does not replace the loss. If the veterinarian’s conduct was intentional or quite outrageous, some states allow pet owners to recover compensation and/or punitive damages for their emotional distress. In general, the rules for compensation in veterinary malpractice cases can vary from state to state and different courts within the state may have different approaches.
Veterinarians can use certain defenses in response to a malpractice claim such as:
- Good Samaritan Laws: If vets provide on-site, emergency care, the laws in some states protect them from malpractice claims.
- Vets are not held to the ordinary standard of care while providing on-site emergency care and they can be safe from liability in these situations as long as they are not negligent or careless in a major way.
- Statute of Limitations: Malpractice claims against vets need to be brought within a certain period of time and a lawsuit cannot be filed after the time limit no matter how careless or negligent the vet was.
- Both malpractice and simple negligence cases in most states must be filed within one to three years of the injury. However, the statute of limitations for veterinary malpractice cases may be different compared to that for medical malpractice. It is also possible that the time limit for veterinarian malpractice suits may not be explicitly mentioned in the statutes. If you are in doubt, it is important to talk to an attorney.
Veterinarians like other professionals are expected to meet the professional standard of care while providing their services. However, if a vet falls below the standard of care, then your pet can be harmed.
If you feel that your pet experienced harm because of veterinary malpractice, it is important to consult with an experienced consumer lawyer before proceeding.