(CA - US) The $50,000 Mutt

Snugglezzz at aol.com Snugglezzz at aol.com
Tue Jun 17 19:53:28 EDT 2003

The $50,000 Mutt        
Under laws that treat pets as property, vets are largely unaccountable for 
malpractice. That's something a pair of rookie lawyers from Alameda hope to 
<A HREF="http://www.eastbayexpress.com/feedback/index_html?author_email=will.harper@eastbayexpress.com&feedback_email=nope&headline=The%20%2450%2C000%20Mutt&issuedate=2003/06/11">will.harper at eastbayexpress.com</A> 

Austin is dead and gone. He died more than a year ago, but Jennifer Rampton 
and her husband, David Lunas, still haven't found peace. In their minds, their 
boy should still be alive, and would be, had his doctor not misdiagnosed what 
in retrospect seemed like an obvious condition. The recent law school 
graduates were still students when they first brought their three-year-old beagle mix 
to Berkeley's University Veterinarian Hospital a couple years back. The two 
had a theory about why their supposedly neutered dog was humping a stuffed toy 
dog to the point of making himself bleed: a retained testicle. It certainly 
would have explained his odd sexual behavior, they figured. The vet didn't seem 
worried about Austin, named after the bumbling British movie spy. After feeling 
the dog's genital area and stomach, court papers say, the vet confidently 
concluded the pooch didn't have a testicle hiding in his body. She allegedly 
assured the couple that Austin was exhibiting "normal dog behavior" and told them 
not to stress too much. A year later, pet surgeons diagnosed Austin with 
testicular cancer after removing a three-pound malignant tumor from his 
seventeen-pound body. The couple's hunch about a retained testicle had been right after 
all. By now, portions of the tumor had become intertwined with the dog's major 
organs and couldn't be removed. To have any chance of survival, Austin would 
need expensive chemotherapy. It was too late, it turned out, for chemo to do 
much good. On the way home from his fifth chemo treatment, the end was obviously 
near -- Austin puked nine times in the car and then refused to eat for three 
days. Rampton and Lunas were confronted with the most awful choice any loving 
pet owner with a sick critter must make. Austin whimpered when vets from 
another clinic injected him with a euthanizing chemical the following week. Lunas 
put his hand on the dog's chest over his heart. He felt Austin's last 
heartbeat. Afterward, Lunas recalls with a sigh, he hugged the dog and sobbed. Alive, 
Austin was worth about $25 if you go by what Lunas and Rampton paid for the 
mutt at the local shelter. Dead, he's worth as much as $50,000, if you go by what 
his owners are seeking in a malpractice suit against their veterinarian. Not 
only are they asking the vet and her hospital to cover $20,000 in 
cancer-related medical expenses but, with a little help from a pioneering animal-law 
professor, they are also challenging the dated legal contention that pets should be 
treated as personal property rather than man's best friend. Except in truly 
unusual cases, property owners can't recover money for emotional distress 
caused by lost or destroyed property. Courts typically allow pet owners to recover 
only the market value of their lost or damaged property. And if that 
"property" happened to be a shelter mutt like Austin, the owner would be lucky to 
recover a box of animal crackers from the defendant. But in more and more cases, 
pet owners such as Lunas and Rampton are asking judges to view their pets as 
something more akin to loved ones. In Austin's case, the Hastings graduates are 
demanding $30,000 in Alameda County Superior Court for the emotional distress 
they suffered after losing their dog. It's a long shot, especially for a couple 
of legal novices, but if they prevail, experts in animal law say it would be 
the largest-ever judgment of its kind against a California veterinarian. Like 
so many pet owners -- and there are an estimated 71.1 million households in 
the country with cats or dogs -- Jennifer Rampton and David Lunas considered 
their dog a member of the family, perhaps a bit more so than most: They dressed 
him up on Halloween as Dracula with a cape and hood. They bought him Christmas 
presents and gift-wrapped them. He'd even jump in the bathtub while Lunas 
showered before school. This is an age where household animals are treated like 
spoiled children. It's not unheard of for divorcing couples to have raging 
custody battles over a pet, and thirteen states, according to one legal journal, 
allow people to establish trusts for their pets in case the owner should die 
first. In the American Animal Hospital Association's most recent annual survey of 
pet owners, 63 percent responded that they say "I love you" to their animals 
at least once a day; 83 percent of those polled refer to themselves as their 
pet's mom or dad; and 59 percent celebrate their animal's birthday. Grief 
counseling is also widely available for people whose pets have died. And many of 
the dead receive a proper burial: There are now more than six hundred pet 
cemeteries in the United States, according to the International Association of Pet 
Cemeteries. Rampton and Lunas opted for cremation, and they keep Austin's ashes 
in an urn at their Alameda home. But perhaps the single most telling 
indicator of how much our pets mean to us is how much we spend to keep them healthy. 
Americans spent $18.25 billion on health care for their dogs and cats in 2001, 
according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That's more than 
double what they spent a decade earlier. The average dog owner shelled out $179 
on veterinary care for his pooch in 2001, the association estimates, while the 
average cat owner spent $83. That money almost always comes directly out of 
pocket, since only a tiny fraction of pet owners carry pet health insurance. 
Oakland freelance writer Michael Hardesty says he spent more than $6,000 at a 
local animal hospital over four months to treat his two-year-old kitty, Gina. She 
had feline immunodeficiency virus, the cat equivalent of the virus that 
causes AIDS in humans. "I would have paid triple that to keep her alive," he 
proclaims. "She was the sweetest, most affectionate cat we have ever known. She was 
our baby." His cat died, he says, after losing too much blood during a biopsy 
in March. Afterward, he bought her a headstone and held a funeral service in 
his backyard. "Gina," he eulogized, "you will always live in our hearts." 
Hardesty is also thinking of suing his vet, whom he believes ended his cat's life 
prematurely; he says he has hired an attorney. Austin's owners, meanwhile, 
loaded up their credit cards to cover his expensive cancer treatments. Rampton 
says neither she nor her husband had imagined at the beginning that their vet 
bills would reach $20,000; the tab just kept mounting, slowly. To save money, the 
couple didn't buy any Christmas presents the year their dog was diagnosed. 
Instead, they tied a gold ribbon around his neck because, they reasoned, having 
Austin alive was their present. They say they never contemplated putting 
Austin to sleep, in spite of his rising medical costs, until it became obvious he 
was too sick to enjoy living. "For us, there wasn't a question," says Rampton, 
31. "We loved him. I would have sold my car. ... There's nothing we wouldn't 
have done to try and give him a chance." Veterinarians are in an awkward spot 
when it comes to the emotional bond between people and their pets. They profit 
from the strong attachment because it makes folks such as Rampton and Lunas 
willing to spend $20,000 to keep their dogs alive. But if the vets screw up, 
well, then they've got sad and perhaps angry clients on their hands. That, 
according to Santa Ana-based animal-law attorney Robert Newman, is when vets and 
their malpractice lawyers hide behind the legal definition of animals as personal 
property or chattel, to use the legalese. If the law sounds archaic, it is: 
It's a throwback to agrarian times when most Americans lived on farms and 
animals had a clear economic role instead of the primarily emotional one they now 
do. The outdated legal definition protects vets from the kinds of 
zillion-dollar malpractice lawsuits that have plagued human medicine. Newman occasionally 
gets invited to speak at veterinary conferences on how to avoid liability. When 
he does, he always brings Ruben, a Chihuahua that cost him $23 to adopt, and 
holds his pup for all to see, asking: "'How many of you believe for a moment 
that if you make a mistake that results in this dog's death you make me whole 
by giving me $23?' "Of course, none of them raise their hands," the lawyer 
notes. "And I say to them, 'Let me suggest to you that you're a profession that 
has it both ways. On the one hand, you're a multibillion-dollar business where, 
when I come in to see you, you are relying on me having an emotional 
attachment to my animal so much so that I'm willing to spend whatever it takes to make 
that animal well. And you say to me in your waiting room, 'How's your boy? 
What's wrong with your kid? What's wrong with your baby?' And yet if you mess up, 
and I want you to be held accountable, you answer me with, 'It's a piece of 
property.' And I would suggest to you that if you actually believe that you 
should hang a plaque in your front office that says, 'You are hereby notified 
that we subscribe to the belief that your animal is a piece of property and will 
be treated as such here,' we'll see how long you stay in business. You just 

<A HREF="http://www.eastbayexpress.com/index.html">eastbayexpress.com</A> | originally published: June 11, 2003    

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