Vets Causing Distress and Negligence Claims

I am an animal lover.  I have chickens, ducks and a lame goose in the garden; and an asthmatic cat indoors.  I also volunteer with the British Hen Welfare Trust, initially rescuing battery hens but now rescuing hens at the end of their commercial life and re-homing them.  Some of them I even sneak back home with me!  I therefore find it very upsetting when I get calls from another animal lover whose pet has died at the hands of their vet as invariably, there is so little I can do and I really feel for them.

Unfortunately, it all comes down to the value of the claim.  When it comes to a  professional negligence claim, the Court will generally only award compensation for your financial loss.  Sometimes this might be some of the vet’s fees but also it is the value of the animal itself.  If you got Muffy from the Cat Protection League or Tonto is a ‘Heinz 57’dog, their financial value is going to be very limited.

The caller is also usually extremely upset by the loss of their pet.  Losing a companion animal can be very distressing but unfortunately the Courts decided a number of years ago that for reasons of policy, “a contract-breaker is not in general liable for any distress, frustration, anxiety, displeasure, vexation, tension or aggravation which his breach of contract may cause to the innocent party.”   (If it is any consolation, if you lost a human loved one, the statutory bereavement award is capped at just £11,800 – not much I know).

So, invariably, vet negligence claims tend to be worth less than £5,000 which means it will be allocated to the Small Claims Court.  The cost consequence of a Small Claim is that regardless of whether you win or lose, you will not be able to recover your legal costs, except in exceptional circumstances.  Given that the cost of a medical report into the death of Muffy or Tonto can run in to many hundreds of pounds and the solicitors bill will be much more, you will appreciate that for most people it is simply not cost effective to sue.

I have only ever brought two Vet negligence claims, but this is only because the animals involved were very valuable.  The first was in respect of a pedigree breeding dog.  Not only had this bitch done extremely well at Crufts, she had a long and revered pedigree and her pups were well sought after – there was a waiting list if memory serves correct with each pup being sold for many hundreds of pounds.  During a routine internal examination, the vet made an error resulting in the dog having to be spayed.  Because of her previous breeding history, I was able to sue the Vet for the loss of future earnings that the Owner would have received during the dog’s life.  At least the dog had survived in this instance.

The second case I dealt with was in respect of a purebred horse.  If you are a bit squeamish or have a delicate tum, you might want to skip this part!

The Owners brought their mare to breeding stables to be live covered by a stallion.  I think I have said in a previous blog entry that I learn a lot of things doing this job and this one was no exception.  There is a lot more to covering a mare than you would imagine including a lot of human involvement.  My understanding is that a handler actually assists with the act of coitus by guiding the stallion in the act of penetration.  In this particular instance, the handler erroneously allowed penetration to occur in the rectum causing the rectal wall to split.  This was not detected and by the time the mare showed signs of ill health, faeces had been entering the mare’s bloodstream for a long period of time causing considerable infection and later, death.  It was only on autopsy that the error was discovered.  The value of the mare was quite considerable as were all the vet’s fees incurred by the Owner in trying to treat the mare.  I was successful in that claim but again, only because of the value of the animal.

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