Jeff Segal, MD, JD, FACS

A story from WHYY Philadelphia News caught our attention. Philadelphia resident David Siff took his sick cat to the veterinarian. The doctor’s diagnosis: fur ball; which did not seem right, at least to Siff. Nonetheless, Siff deferred to the vet’s opinion. Two days later the cat died from complications related to urinary tract infection. Some fur ball.

I was really upset because the vet completely misdiagnosed him, never took his temperature, never did any labs, nothing for his diagnosis. You know, really just gave him a cursory look over and gave him his diagnosis, and we couldn’t help thinking that if he had diagnosed him correctly, maybe we could have saved his life, could have treated him earlier and saved his life.

Siff complained to the veterinary licensing board, but they refused to discipline the doctor.

He then investigated suing. What he learned:

It turns out cats are considered chattel, and you cannot sue for more than the value, which would be about 50 bucks at a pet store. So there was just no recourse.

So Siff could sue for the medical bills but could not recover non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is often the largest component of a judgment or settlement in human medical malpractice cases.

But, if advocates such as Animal Legal Defense Fund Attorney Matthew Leibman have their way, change is coming.

Leibman concedes allowing pain and suffering malpractice suits could drive up the cost of vet care, but that concern is not compelling enough to hold back change.

If we really just saw animals as mere property, we wouldn’t spend thousands and thousands of dollars to keep them alive. We would just discard them and get a new one at the shelter. So the veterinary industry certainly benefits from people having a connection, having a relationship and a bond with their animals. So I think it’s only fair that when they cause that sort of suffering to someone who’s lost a companion animal, that they compensate that person.

If animal owners are allowed to sue for pain and suffering, we have a pretty good idea how this will turn out. The price of taking your dog or cat to the vet will skyrocket. Just what we need, more litigation.