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Veterinary Law Blog

When Pet Owners File Litigation against Veterinarians, It's Rarely over Money

October 20, 2021

As if running a business isn’t hard enough, veterinarians often worry about getting sued for malpractice or negligence. One reason to be fearful is obvious – a well-publicized lawsuit can quickly ruin a veterinarian’s career and practice. Another reason to be fearful is less obvious – absolutely no one in the world, not even an attorney, can predict the outcome of a lawsuit with perfect certainty. That’s because the outcome of litigation depends on many factors, including the facts and circumstances of the case, the personal ideology of judges and juries, and the type of lawsuit brought by a pet owner. To illustrate that point, and uncover a few best practices you can follow to safeguard against lawsuits, let’s dive into a recent appellate case in New Jersey. 
 
The case of Amor the cat 
 
In this case, the plaintiff brought his sick cat, Amor, to a local veterinary hospital. Amor was subsequently diagnosed with saddle thrombus, a heart condition, and needed to be euthanized. During the euthanasia, Amor bit one of the staff members. The veterinarian informed Amor’s owner that pursuant to state law, a brain tissue sample was required to determine whether the cat had rabies. The plaintiff explained to the veterinarian that Amor was a vaccinated indoor cat, and was never outdoors. He also provided Amor’s vaccination records and suggested that the veterinarian speak to Amor’s primary veterinarian. 
 
Before Amor’s body was sent to testing, the plaintiff was given the opportunity to say goodbye. At that time, Amor’s owner cried, as he held Amor's body, spoke to him, and sang to him before the veterinarian took Amor away. At this time, the plaintiff also advised the veterinarian, not once but twice, that he intended to display Amor’s body at the pet cemetery prior to cremation. When the negative rabies test was returned, Amor’s body was released to the plaintiff.
 
When he viewed his pet at the cemetery, the plaintiff discovered that Amor had been decapitated due to the brain tissue sampling, and his head had been disposed of as medical waste. The veterinarian never explained to plaintiff what a rabies brain tissue sample entailed. Similarly, the veterinarian never provided the plaintiff with other options for sampling, even though other less drastic options existed. Plaintiff was also not informed that his pet’s head would not be returned after the testing was completed, even though such a request could be made. 
 
As a result of this incident, the plaintiff went "into a state of shock,” in front of the pet cemetery’s staff.  He also called the police department and requested to be connected to grief counseling services. 

An analysis of the plaintiff’s lawsuit

Approximately two years after Amor’s death, the plaintiff filed a complaint consisting of one count of negligent infliction of emotional distress, six counts of negligence, and one count of bailment (a legal term involving the transfer of personal property for a short time). This article will solely discuss the first count of the plaintiff’s complaint, in which the plaintiff alleged that he developed severe mental and physical health problems because of the incident. 
The plaintiff’s suit was dismissed at the trial court, but on appeal, the appellate court ruled that the veterinary hospital had a duty to return Amor’s body in an acceptable condition. It also ruled that the veterinary hospital breached their duty to Amor’s owner by disregarding the obvious mental distress he would experience from seeing Amor’s decapitated body, and by decapitating Amor without informing him of less drastic alternatives, pursuant to the New Jersey Veterinary Procedures for Handling Rabies Situations. Ultimately, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the case for trial.
 
Key takeaways from the decision 

The appellate court clearly outlined the mistakes that led to this lawsuit, and by analyzing those mistakes, a few best practices emerge:  
 
1. Empathy is a critically important quality: It is important for you to know your client and pay attention to social cues. In this case, the veterinarian and staff did not place enough emphasis on the plaintiff’s obvious emotional distress. The court emphasized the fact that the plaintiff cried loudly, held Amor's body, spoke to him, and sang to him before the cat's body was taken away. As this case highlights, it is more likely that a court will find “foreseeable damage,” if a highly emotional or sensitive client is involved. When these situations arise, it’s important to recognize them and handle accordingly. 
 
2. Learn to communicate effectively: Spending time with clients and practicing effective communication, oral and written, is one of the best ways to ward off malpractice and legal liability. It is your responsibility to ensure that clients are fully informed about their pet’s treatment and their options. In this case, the client knew nothing more than his cat was being tested for rabies. He was not informed how the test was conducted, whether alternate testing was available, and in what state his pet would be returned to him. 
 
3. Listen, and then listen some more: We all know the feeling of seeing a doctor that didn’t spend enough time with us, or wasn’t really listening. Listening to the client could have played a large role in avoiding this lawsuit. The plaintiff clearly explained that Amor was an indoor cat and that his vaccinations were up to date. Even if testing was indeed necessary, the plaintiff also repeatedly put the veterinarian on notice that he would be viewing Amor at the pet cemetery. Nevertheless, the hospital did not take any of the precautionary measures that were available. 
 
4. Train your staff to handle difficult situations:  An emotional intelligence workshop, or even a basic training session that reviews different client scenarios can help prepare staff to handle difficult situations. For example, in this case, when the plaintiff called the hospital to ask why he was not informed that Amor would be decapitated, an employee referred the plaintiff to the Department of Health with Amor's case number – a decision that left an emotionally distraught client angry, and with unanswered questions. Subsequent calls to the veterinary hospital led to similar outcomes for the plaintiff, and eventually, to litigation. If you run through situations like this with your staff, and develop a set of best practices, you may be able to prevent difficult matters from escalating.   
 
The big takeaway

Lawsuits are often not about money. They frequently arise not because of the initial action, but because people feel that they were ignored, or mistreated, or even lied to by people they trusted. Luckily, lawsuits are not inevitable. If you hone the skills noted above, you stand a much better chance of avoiding lawsuits, or improving your odds in lawsuits that do arise. 
 

Attorney: Melody Lins
Related Practice: Veterinary Law