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For many of us here in Ohio, our pets are family. When we take our dog, or cat, or any other pet to the veterinarian, we expect the vet to give them the best care possible. That’s why in 2016, we spent $15.95 billion on veterinary care in the United States. But sometimes vets breach their standard of care and injure our pets, resulting in veterinary malpractice. They can be negligent, or even worse — abusive.
Consider these cases, all of which are true:
- A pet owner took her dog to the vet for surgery for a torn ligament. The vet operated on the wrong leg. Not only that, but the surgery was so poorly done that a bone plate fractured during the surgery.
- A veterinary clinic repeatedly gave an elderly cat 10 times the correct dosage of insulin. The cat was left blind, brain-damaged and prone to seizures.
- A vet told a pet owner that his dog had painful and terminal bone cancer and should be euthanized. The entire family was devastated and emotionally distraught. The day before it was scheduled, the man took his dog to another vet who revealed his dog did not have bone cancer at all — he was simply recovering from an injury. The dog was still living a healthy life three years later.
It’s bad enough when your companion animal is sick or hurt. But to have them suffer these kinds of injuries for no reason is devastating. On top of that, in an attempt to get your pet help for any injuries caused by a vet, you can incur thousands of dollars in veterinary fees at another vet clinic.
Though it is possible to hold an irresponsible vet accountable, it’s not likely you will collect much beyond vet fees. Most pet owners pursue remedies against negligent vets in an attempt to save other animals from facing similar fates.
There are three possible actions Ohioans can take against negligent veterinarians:
- Report the vet to the Ohio Veterinary Medical Licensing Board
- File a case in civil court
- Seek criminal charges if the vet was not just negligent, but guilty of animal abuse
Let’s take a look at more details on each.
Complaints to the Ohio Veterinary Medical Licensing Board
If your primary purpose is to get the vet’s license revoked, you can file a complaint with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Licensing Board (OVMLB). ORC §4741.26 requires the OVMLB to make investigations of valid, written complaints that violate the state laws governing the practice of veterinary medicine. You can download the Ohio veterinary complaint form on the OVMLB website.
Disciplinary action includes requiring the vet to take courses, charging fines (but not more than $1,000 under ORC §4741.22(C ), and suspending or revoking their veterinary license. Heads up to all current and future Ohio pet owners looking to do research on veterinarians: All disciplinary actions are published on the OVMLB website. ORC §4741.22 lists the causes for which disciplinary actions may be taken, including gross incompetence or gross negligence (ORC §4741.22(A) (16)), failure to use reasonable care in the administration of drugs (ORC §4741.22 (A) (21)), and cruelty to animals (ORC §4741.22(A) (26)).
Civil Causes of Action against Veterinarians
You are not limited to filing a complaint with the Ohio Veterinary Medicine Licensing Board; you could file a lawsuit in civil court. Ohio has no specific statute addressing veterinary malpractice, which leaves lawyers to seek redress under a variety of causes of action. Let’s examine three of the most common.
The Ohio Revised Code does not provide a specific statute against veterinary malpractice. However, that does not mean pet owners do not have civil remedies against bad vets. You can sue for negligence in civil court. Most Ohio cases have held vets only to a standard of an ordinary reasonable person. You must establish that (a) the veterinarian owed a standard of care that a reasonable person would be expected to give; (b) they breached that standard of care; (c) your pet suffered injuries, thus causing you damages; (d) the veterinarian’s actions were the cause of the injuries; and (e) the vet should have foreseen the result of their actions.
But other Ohio cases have held vets to the higher standard of care of veterinary malpractice; this means the court must compare the veterinarian’s actions to that of a reasonable and diligent veterinarian rather than a lay person, Storozuk v. W.A. Butler Co. (1964), 3 Ohio Misc. 60, 61-62, cited in the case of Ullmann v. Duffus, 2005-Ohio-6060. Though the vet must meet a higher standard of care, veterinary malpractice can sometimes be a tougher case to prove because expert testimony is typically required.
Breach of Contract
A breach of contract claim focuses on the agreement you had with the veterinarian to supply veterinary services in return for payment. You must show that the services were expected to be performed within the standard of care of a normally diligent veterinarian. Under this kind of an action, when the veterinarian breaches the standard of care, they also breach the contract. You must prove that you suffered loss because of this breach, and that the veterinarian could have foreseen the damages they caused.
A bailment is created when you give property to someone to retain in their custody with the expectation it will be returned later. So if you leave your cat at the vet for boarding or hospitalization, it can be argued that the vet is a bailee. The cause of action arises if the vet is negligent in providing care or does not redeliver the cat. There is no requirement for an expert witness in a bailment case, and the burden of proof can shift to the vet to explain what happened.
Where to File a Civil Case Against a Veterinarian
Cases can be filed in either civil court or criminal court.
If you are suing for less than $3,000, you could sue in small claims court and represent yourself. Procedures and evidence rules are much more relaxed than in other courts. If you are seeking between $3,000 and $15,000, you can sue in the civil division of municipal or county court. You should file in common pleas court if you are seeking over $15,000 in damages.
For cases of animal abuse, you could file a complaint with the police and hope the prosecutor takes action against a vet who abused your pet. The state would be the plaintiff in a criminal case, not you, and you would not receive a money award. It is possible to bring both a civil and a criminal suit against the same defendant for the same act.
Pets are legally considered personal property in Ohio, and compensation for property is usually the lesser of its market value or the cost of repair, whichever is less. However, there have been many Ohio cases where veterinary expenses were included in damages awarded to pet owners. The Court of Appeals in Toledo Ohio ruled in 2016 that dogs should not be considered just property. The court overturned a lower court decision that awarded only the dog’s market value to the owner of a dog that was attacked and severely injured by another dog. In that case, the plaintiff spent over $10,000 in veterinary care as a result of the attack, and the court felt the owner should be compensated for that. Had the dog died before undergoing expensive veterinary care, it is likely the plaintiff would only have been compensated for the dog’s market value.
A pet owner cannot recover damages for emotional distress due to loss of a pet in Ohio, Ullmann v. Duffus, 2005-Ohio-6060. However, Tennessee allows up to $5,000 to be awarded to dog and cat owners for “the loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love, and affection of the pet.” Emotional distress awards have also been made in California for the loss of a pet. In 2004, a California jury awarded a man named Marc Bluestone $39,000 for the loss of his dog, and $30,000 of that was for the dog’s emotional value to his owner.
What to Do if Your Pet is the Victim of Veterinary Malpractice
If you think your pet was injured due to veterinary malpractice, seek a second opinion from a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible. If your pet died, take their body to another veterinarian to determine the cause of death; a college of veterinary medicine would be a good choice. Get all of your pet’s medical records and test results from the first vet. If the vet you consulted for a second opinion gives you information that supports your suspicions about malpractice, contact a qualified, experienced Ohio attorney immediately.