Malpractice suits going to the dogs
U.S. litigation trend may rear its head here
Cristin Schmitz, with a file from Jered Stuffco
CanWest News Service
June 24, 2005
OTTAWA -- Pet owners who consider their ailing animals "family" are fuelling a novel litigation trend in the United States that is expected to surface soon in Canadian courtrooms.
Yes, coming soon, it's medical malpractice against negligent veterinarians to compensate bereaved pet owners for loss of companionship and emotional distress.
To date, the record U.S. malpractice settlement was a California jury award of $39,000 US last year to Marc Bluestone, whose mutt Shane died of liver failure after it was misdiagnosed.
In a verdict under appeal by the vet, Bluestone was awarded $9,000 for his vet bills plus $30,000 for the dog's "unique" value.
The dog's market value was $10.
Canadian courts have yet to follow a similar path.
Malpractice awards against vets here have been confined to the market value of the animal plus the owners' out-of-pocket expenses. The paltry awards of damages offer little incentive for aggrieved pet owners or enterprising lawyers to sue.
But, according to a cover story in the current edition of The Lawyers Weekly headlined "Will Canadian courts go to the cats and dogs?" that could soon change.
Vancouver litigator Victoria Shroff says she's currently working on a "fair number" of malpractice suits against veterinarians.
"I've been involved with clients who take it as seriously as if a child has died," she told The Province.
Shroff calls pet litigation a "growth area" in Canadian law and notes that legal trends in the U.S. often find their way into Canadian courts.
As well, recent pet-custody cases in Canada are proof that views within the legal system are beginning to shift, with animals being seen increasingly as conscious beings, Shroff said.
And that could lead to bigger malpractice cases in the future.
"A lot of people are taking pet ownership a lot more seriously. You'll see a different area of pet and animal law evolving, and it will have an impact on something like pet malpractice," she said.
© The Vancouver Province 2005