Can a Vet Be Sued for Emotional Injuries of Family Whose Pet Dies?

Aug. 22, 2003 -- When your pet dies under questionable circumstances, can you sue the vet for emotional devastation? A groundbreaking case in Florida may answer that question once and for all.

Adam Riff lost Lucky, the dog he called his best friend, after a trip to the veterinarian in July 2001 went terribly wrong. Lucky, an 8-year-old Shetland sheepdog, visited the Welleby Veterinary Medical Center in Sunrise, Fla., to have two bad teeth removed.

Adam's mom, Ellen Riff, dropped the dog off at around 8 a.m. on June 12, and was told he would be ready by noon. But when she called, the vet's office said they were backed up and to call again at 2 p.m. When she called again, she learned that he still wasn't ready yet.

"She called at that time, and was told again that they were delayed," Adam Riff said. "My mother was nervous, so she went to the vet's office. When she got there, she was shocked. She saw Lucky in an oxygen tent, and he looked catatonic."

Rushed to the Hospital

Dr. John Willie told her that Lucky's appearance was normal because the dog was still under anesthesia, according to Adam Riff, who also went to the vet's office. Willie told the Riffs that Lucky needed to be taken to an animal hospital emergency room facility because the office was closing at 5 p.m., Adam Riff said. But the veterinarian said Lucky would only be released after the bill was paid.

The Riffs took Lucky to an E.R. about 45 minutes to an hour away, where doctors had already been told by Willie that Lucky's problems were pulmonary, according to the Riffs. Many hours later, the ER doctors realized that Lucky's illness was due to the anesthesia he received at Welleby. Later that day, Lucky died.

The Riffs filed suit against Willie and his facility, charging him with breach of contract, malpractice and emotional distress.

Willie's defense attorney, Dan Bachi, said that under state law, pet owners are only entitled to the market value of their pet.

Pets Considered Chattel

"Currently, the law in the state of Florida, is that a household pet, such as a cat or dog, is considered chattel or property damage," Bachi said. "Recovery for loss of such a pet is the fair market value of the pet, and generally, a claimant is not entitled to pain and suffering for that loss."

Ironically, while the case is about whether people should recover damages for the pain and suffering for the loss of a pet, the Florida legislature has voted to put a cap on pain and suffering on people who are the victims of medical malpractice, Bachi said.

"In any event, to recover pain and suffering for the loss of a pet is something that should be addressed in the legislature and not the court system," Bachi said.

The groundbreaking suit has survived two motions to dismiss by the defendant, and is now awaiting a trial date.