Four-month-old Jenny, a light-brown pit bull mix, was hit by a car in August 2002. As Robert Newman, a California-based animal law attorney, tells it, Jenny's vet put a cast on her broken back leg, assuring her owners he had X-rayed the fracture first to make sure everything was in the right place. But after six weeks, the stocky pup still couldn't put any weight on her limb. A follow-up X-ray brought some ugly revelations: no fusion between the bones, a developing infection -- and the vet's admission that he'd never actually taken that first X-ray. After getting second and third opinions, Jenny's owners decided on amputation. The puppy's condition, however, continued to deteriorate, and she was euthanized.
"I don't think most people should go in concerned about 'What if my veterinarian does something wrong?' " Newman says. "On the other hand, I don't believe in blind trust." He mailed the vet a draft lawsuit, which prompted the doctor's insurance company to pay all of Jenny's costs (and staved off the lawsuit). The lesson? Vet malpractice isn't common, but it does occur. Here's what to do if you suspect it's happened to your pet.
1Give your vet a chance
Every medical procedure involves some risk. If something goes wrong, don't assume your vet is at fault right off the bat. In a malpractice case, says Andrew Marter, a lawyer in Rockville who has represented veterinarians, "you've got to prove that [the vet was] negligent and that the negligence caused some kind of injury." When a pet owner suspects malpractice, "sometimes there's just a misunderstanding," he says. So let your vet give his full side of the story. Also be sure to educate yourself about the risks of a particular procedure right from the start. If you don't, you may have a tough time distinguishing between an unforeseeable problem and actual negligence.
2Get it in writing
Ask for a copy of your pet's file -- test results, X-rays, everything. "When you're walking out the door" is the best time to do it, says Laura Ireland Moore, an attorney with the Animal Law Practice in Portland, Ore., who points out that any delay could give an unscrupulous vet time to modify documents. Take pictures of your pet to record its healing. Keep copies of all medical bills and any releases or waivers you signed. And write down everything you can remember about what happened.
3Seek a second opinion
Taking your pet to another doctor -- not one recommended by your original vet -- should help you clear up the question of whether the injury could have happened even under the best care. "With dogs or cats, you do a surgery and there are always going to be risks," Moore says. "But if you have to get your [pet's] leg amputated and they cut off the wrong leg, that's below the standard of care, and [the vet] should be held responsible for that." If your pet has died, insist the vet release its body to you on the spot; then take it to another expert -- ideally, a veterinary pathologist -- to perform a necropsy (an animal autopsy).
4Decide whether to sue
Vet malpractice cases aren't easy to win, and payouts rarely exceed a few thousand dollars. "Pets are essentially treated as property" under the law, explains Marter. "Generally speaking, emotional damages are not recoverable." If you're just looking for reimbursement for vet costs or the market value of the pet, consider small-claims court: It's faster than a lawsuit and doesn't require a lawyer.
Bonnie Beaver, president of the American Veterinary Medical
Association, suggests an alternative to suing: File a written report with the state licensing board. "By law, the state boards are obligated to follow up on that," she says. Include documentation and photos of the injuries, if possible. To learn how to file a complaint, or to find out if your vet has had any filed against him, contact your state's board. (Virginia: 800-533-1560 or www.dhp.virginia.gov. Maryland: 410-841-5862 or www.mda.state.md.us/vet/filing.htm. The District: 202-442-4345.) The board may issue a reprimand, order continuing education, suspend or revoke the vet's license, or decide the complaint has no merit.
5Settle in for the long haul
Should you decide to turn to the courts, you'll probably want a lawyer. "If you can't find an animal law attorney in your city," Moore says, "don't be discouraged." Look for a lawyer with experience in wrongful injury cases (you can search by specialty at Lawyers.com). Then call your accountant: "One could end up spending easily $50,000 or $60,000 and not see anything in return," says Joyce Tischler, executive director of the Petaluma, Calif.-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. It could take months or even years. And whatever an aggrieved pet owner decides to do, cautions Beaver, "the grief is going to be there whether they get money or not." So why would anyone bother? Says Moore: "They feel like it's a really strong statement that needs to be made . . . and there's somebody who's going to hold [the vet] responsible."