A Tustin, Calif., woman is suing a veterinary office for $1 million, alleging they used extortion by threatening to report her for animal cruelty when she couldn't pay for a $10,000 surgical procedure for her dog.
Karen Kelly's dog, Mojo, was hit and dragged under a car on July 31, 2011, Kelly claims in a lawsuit filed with the California Superior Court in Orange County. She rushed the dog to Advanced Critical Care and Internal Medicine Inc., a 24-hour veterinary facility in Tustin, the court filing states.
She signed an estimate and authorization for services after being asked to do so, according to the lawsuit. She was told "immediate surgery" was needed to save Mojo's life, costing $10,000, but "that there was no guarantee that Mojo would survive the surgery," according to the court filing.
She explained that she did not have $10,000 and called several friends to see if they could come up with the money, but none could, states the lawsuit, which adds one friend applied for credit at the center and was declined.
Kelly, who is suing for civil extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress, declined to comment to ABC News and directed questions to her attorney.
Her attorney, Barry Besser, said he is investigating which veterinarians from the practice, which was bought by new owners and renamed in 2012, will be named as defendants. Until then, the lawsuit has not yet been served.
The veterinarian who saw Mojo, according to the dog's medical record, Dayna Zane, no longer works at the location and declined to comment to ABC News.
One of the alleged former owners of Advanced Critical Care and Internal Medicine Inc. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kelly, according to the lawsuit, "then insisted that she be allowed to go home and bring back a check, but the defendants refused, "stating that they were afraid [Kelly] would abandon the dog and not come back." She also asked to bring Mojo home that day so she could bring the animal to her own veterinarian in the morning, the filing states.
The defendants refused, giving her "three options," the court filing states: "1) Put the dog to sleep 2) Pay the $10,000 3) Keep the dog in critical care overnight, which would cost $1,500 in addition to what the defendants were going to charge [Kelly] for what they had already done, which was in the sum of $1,308.75."
The defendants also told Kelly that "if she insisted on taking her dog home, that she would have to sign a form that it was against" their medical advice, "and that they were going to report her to the authorities for 'animal cruelty,' which is a crime," the lawsuit states.
In the lawsuit, Kelly claims she did not have the funds to pay the $1,308.75 bill. She was "required to and forced to sign an agreement to pay said amount in full the very next day, or she would be turned over to collections," the lawsuit states.
"[Kelly] signed the agreement under severe duress, as that was the only way that she could get her dog back, even though she knew that she would not be able to pay the entire amount in full by the following day," the lawsuit states.
Dr. Peter Weinstein, executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association, said most veterinarians understand the cost of veterinary care is something for which many people do not budget.
"Beyond the animal's basic welfare, any surprises like dog poison, getting hit by a car or eating panty hose, can run into specific costs and is not expected," he said. "We hope to work with pet owners so a pet gets the best care possible, understanding the cost of providing care."
Weinstein said many people don't fully understand the cost of human health care, if they are exposed mainly to insured care, and are surprised by the cost of animal medical care.
"When you try to compare apples to apples, it is really hard to do," he said. Only a small percentage of pet owners have health insurance for their animals.
Weinstein added that veterinary practices fit more into small business than health care centers for people, and typically require upfront payment, usually cash, check or credit card. However, many veterinarians, including himself, have accepted bartering for owners over time who can not afford to care for their animals' medical care.
"I got signed litograph from an artist for neutering his dog," Weinstein said.
Weinstein adds that pet owners should ask veterinary practices about third party options for payment such as Care Credit.