AR-News: FL Judge OKs Lawsuit Against Vet For Pet's Death

Pat Wolff wolffnm at yahoo.com
Tue Jul 1 20:23:56 EDT 2003


Dog owners entitled to sue veterinarian for pet's
death in potential landmark case

By Lisa J. Huriash 
Sun-Sentinel 
July 1 2003 

Lucky the dog will have his posthumous day in court
after a Broward Circuit judge ruled Tuesday his owners
are entitled to sue a veterinarian for their pet's
death.

In what is viewed as a potential landmark by attorneys
specializing in animal rights, Adam Riff and his
mother, Ellen, of Tamarac, can move forward on their
lawsuit against Welleby Veterinary Medical Center in
Sunrise and their former vet, Dr. John Willie. The
suit claims breach of contract, malpractice and the
emotional distress they suffered in June 2001, when
they dropped off their Shetland sheep dog to have two
teeth pulled and returned to find their beloved pet
dying.
  
At a hearing Tuesday testing the suit's validity under
state law, the Riffs' attorney, Barry Silver of Boca
Raton, cited several Florida cases where pet owners
were allowed to sue for malpractice and won. But
although they tried, none were able to collect for
their own pain and suffering, as in a lawsuit over the
negligent loss of a human life.

The Riffs hope to change that. And on Tuesday it
seemed they had a sympathetic audience in Broward
Circuit Judge J. Leonard Fleet, who waxed poetic about
canine selflessness.

"When all other friends desert, he remains," Fleet
said, reading from a 19th Century text.

Still, a jury verdict for the Riffs would have to hold
up on appeal to become legal precedent. And even
Silver acknowledges the case is "unusual because the
vast majority of courts have refused to permit any
recovery whatsoever of the guardians of the dogs. It's
almost never happened.

"We're definitely moving in the direction where the
courts are starting to catch up with the way society
views dogs and companion animals," said Silver, who is
affiliated with the California-based Animal Legal
Defense Fund.

Other attorneys say that nationally, courts are
recognizing an expansion of the traditional view of
pets as chattel, like any other piece of property and
worth only their cost to replace.

Last month a California family sued after their
3-year-old beagle mix died from undetected cancer. The
paid about $25 for the dog at a shelter, but they are
suing for $50,000, in part to cover cancer-related
medical expenses, and also for emotional damages.

One of the largest emotional distress judgments in
California for vet malpractice, $20,000, came in a
2000 case in which a botched surgery left a woman's
Rottweiler with painful broken teeth and infected
paws.

"There's absolutely a trend going on here," said
Jennifer Dietz, a Tampa civil trial lawyer who also
specializes in animal law. "Most people nowadays see
their dogs as part of their family. It's not akin to
losing a child, it's akin to losing a sentient being,
a loving, caring being that's not replaceable such as
a car."

Case law, she said, "is moving in the right direction.
The courts are beginning to recognize you're entitled
to recourse other than the $99 you paid for the dog or
[nothing] if you got it at the pound."

In Lucky's case, an attorney for the defense, Dan
Bachicq of West Palm Beach, said he will argue the law
hasn't changed all that much. "Claimants are entitled
to recover the fair market value of their pet," he
said, "not unlike any other property. The law is they
should not be entitled to emotional damages."

The Riffs allege that when they went to retrieve their
8-year-old Sheltie later the day of the tooth
extraction, they were "shocked and horrified to find
Lucky in an oxygen chamber," the suit states. They say
Willie, the vet, suggested they take the dog to an
emergency pet hospital since he was getting ready to
close, but would release the dog to them only after
they paid the $519 bill.

Adam Riff carried out the catatonic dog and took him
to the hospital. He died the next day.

According to the suit, the Riffs "had to watch their
companion Lucky die a slow and agonizing death of
vomiting, nausea and indescribable pain.... When there
was nothing left to do but say good-bye, the
plaintiffs tried to comfort their friend and companion
as best they could, and as they left the room they
noticed Lucky looking back at them pathetically for
the last time as if asking for relief, but there was
nothing plaintiffs could do but say good-bye."

Bachi said Lucky died from a pre-existing condition.

Judge Fleet did rule against the Riffs on one point,
throwing out their claim for Lucky's own pain and
suffering. Silver said he would appeal on the basis
that dogs have the same capacity to suffer as people.

After the hearing, the Riffs said they were anxious to
get their case to trial, although a date has not yet
been set.

"He was my little angel," said Ellen Riff. "He was a
good little dog, a gentle little soul." She got Lucky
when he was 8 weeks old.

The trial attorney for the defense, Gregory Kummerlen
of West Palm Beach, declined to comment on the judge's
ruling. Another attorney on the team, Paul Grondahl of
West Palm Beach, said Willie would not comment,
either.

Willie is a good doctor who once saved Lucky's life by
removing a cancerous tumor from his abdomen, Bachi
said. He promised more motions to dismiss the case.

"Everyone is sad when they lose pets for whatever
reason, but this becomes about money," he said. "Their
dog is still going to be dead if they win this case:
win, lose or draw."

Silver, who took the case for free, disputed that.
"Our main focus is to hold the vet accountable so
others will be more careful in the future," he said.
"They can't commit malpractice and say, 'OK, tell me
what you paid for the dog and have a nice day.',"

Silver said he will ask the jury to arrive at a
damages figure for themselves.

"It is not right for the value of a dog to be limited
to what somebody paid for that dog," he said. "The
jury will hear the value of Lucky."

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at
lhuriash at sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4557.  


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