Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Your Horse Died

The best and brightest students become veterinarians. It might be true that it is harder for a student to be accepted into veterinary medicine school than into a medical school dedicated to the care of people. But veterinarians are people. They make mistakes. And the mistakes sometimes have fatal or otherwise disastrous consequences for their patients. Over the course of a veterinarian’s career, his or her good works most likely will far exceed his or her failings.
A medical doctor on the faculty of a well known university once told me that more people die from medical malpractice every year than from automobile accidents in the United States. I do not know how he knows. But I trust his honesty and his knowledge. I suspect it would be far more difficult to reach conclusions about the percentage of fatalities among non-human animals as a consequence of veterinary malpractice.
If a clergyman, or a war hero, or a housewife who raises her kids with great care and devotion causes an automobile accident that results in injury or death to someone else, he or she may be held accountable. This happens even though the person’s virtues greatly exceed his or her failings. Mistakes have consequences, even when those mistakes are not intentioned. You may lament the unfairness of it, but that is the reality. It is part of the rules of the game. And the rules of the game are the laws our society has adopted from centuries of Anglo Saxon law, Common Law, which predates the American Revolution. That law is as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe.
So you took your horse to the veterinary hospital for a medical procedure and the horse died under the care and supervision of veterinary medical staff. There are two initial questions to consider: 1) did the horse die because of medical malpractice, and 2) do you care one way or another?
Maybe the horse would have died no matter what the medical staff did or did not do. So even if there was malpractice, it makes no difference for the outcome. But suppose it did make a difference. For it to be malpractice, the veterinarian must have performed in such a way that his or her performance was not in accordance with the usual judgment, skill and care ordinarily required in the practice of veterinary medicine, and because of that failure the horse died. Maybe the failure was too obvious to you for you to need expert advice to decide the vet failed. You know the only explanation as to why your horse died is because the vet killed it. But if you go to a court to prove your point, you will need an expert witness to confirm your own conclusion. You will need the opinion of another veterinarian. And he or she will testify as to whether your vet performed in accordance with the usual judgment, skill and care ordinarily required in the practice of veterinary medicine. And he or she will require payment from you.
But do you care the horse died? You like the vet. You did not like the horse anyway. Maybe it was a gift from your in-laws and you always hated it. Or maybe the horse was worth $200.00 on the open market and suing to get $200.00 is not worth the aggravation. So you walk away, and pet your cat.
Well, you want to go ahead. The vet is treating you disdainfully, treating you as if you have the IQ of a garden snail, making up stuff to explain why your horse died. And you are angry. Or maybe the economic loss is too big too ignore and the vet will not accept responsibility. You call the clinic and you get put on hold. The only person who will talk with you at the clinic is the janitor. You write letters. No answer. So what should you do next? Well, one option is to talk with a lawyer. Explain what happened. Find out whether a lawsuit might be possible. Find out the costs and benefits of proceeding. Find out what you will need to find out to know if you have a decent chance of winning in court. But if you wait too long, then you waited too long and you should forget about Old Paint.
A veterinarian is a professional. To sue a professional for malpractice in Florida, you have to do so within two years from the from the time the malpractice is discovered or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence. As a general rule you must be the one who had the relationship with the veterinarian, you must be the one who experienced the loss. Do not become committed to starting a law suit until you know what you will be subjecting yourself to. Can you afford to spend money? How much? Are you prepared for the distractions that go with being caught up in litigation proceedings, spending time on a legal battle instead of playing golf or taking your kid fishing, thinking about what is happening, worrying about what comes next, going to a courtroom in front of strangers and being interrogated by someone who is not your friend?
Maybe you decide you cannot deal with a lawsuit, but you remain convinced that your veterinarian did you wrong. You want someone else to know. Contact the State Board of Veterinary Medicine. The Board won’t help you recover money, but it will investigate and discipline vets who do not meet the professional standard of care. You can find the Board’s website at
Or maybe you should forget horses, all horses. Try parakeets, cheap parakeets. You decide.


Gary D. Malfeld
Office Phone Number: 305-477-5688
Cell Phone Number: 786-436-4520
Fax Phone Number: 305-675-5950
© 2012

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