Can you sue a doctor (veterinarian) for wrong diagnosis?

Veterinarians are called doctors. You can sue a doctor for wrong diagnosis but the whole process is usually highly problematic. You know that something went wrong and you know that your cat received poor treatment by your veterinarian and as a result your cat either died or suffered injury. But you’ve got to prove it and that’s difficult to do. And is it worth it?

Emotionally, you want justice. You are angry. You are distraught and you want to make the veterinarian accountable for the pain that he caused you. And for the loss of your darling companion cat. That’s completely understandable. But if you’re going to sue your veterinarian you have to put emotion to one side and make it a business project. You have to look at it coldly and systematically and weigh everything up to figure out whether it’s feasible and sensible to sue a doctor for a wrong diagnosis.

And the same rules apply to human doctors as well as animal doctors. I’ll list some of the barriers to a successful action for compensation against misdiagnosis and/or mistreatment by an animal doctor.

Animal doctor (veterinarian) with young cat in vet clinic
Animal doctor (veterinarian) with young cat in vet clinic. Photo: Pixabay.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Standard of care

The doctor simply has to provide advice and treatment of the standard of a reasonably competent practitioner. Veterinarians are people and people make mistakes. Therefore built into this “standard of care” is the possibility that a doctor may make a mistake. You have to expect doctors to make mistakes from time to time. They are not machines, robots or artificial intelligence computers. They are flesh and blood working in a real environment. And the environment they work in (an emergency?) may dictate how to interpret ‘a reasonable standard of care’.

So the first barrier is that you have to show that your veterinarian’s diagnosis or treatment was below the normal standard provided by veterinarians. This can be difficult to do and you’d need an expert to provide evidence in the form of a written report and to give evidence in court. They will charge quite a high fee, in the thousands of dollars or pounds. So right away your costs in suing a doctor for compensation far outweigh the damages that you will receive if you win. Of course, you will have to add lawyers fees and court fees, to expert fees. It gets expensive. It is daunting and I’m pretty sure that in every case of a person suing a veterinarian under these circumstances that they have lost out financially. They are suing out of principle, not for the money.

Damages

Another big problem with suing veterinarians because of misdiagnosis is working out how much compensation you can get if you get that far. I’m assuming that you have proved negligence and the lawyers and the judge will assess the compensation. A cat has some intrinsic value and purebred cats are more valuable than random bred cats. For example, a random bred cat may be worth about £40 ($40) and a purebred up to £3,000. That sounds ridiculous because your cat is worth far more than that to you, so you will be suing for compensation for emotional distress which is quite a tricky point to argue.

The bottom line is that the amount of compensation you receive might not be that much and will probably be quite a lot less than the amount of money you spent suing a doctor putting aside for a minute amount of time and distress that it causes you.

Negligence and causation

Having established that your doctor’s treatment was below the standard required of a veterinarian under the circumstances, you have to prove causation. This means that you have to prove that what they did resulted in the injury or loss of life. That can be complicated. For example you take your cat for a vaccination and the vaccination harms your cat. If your veterinarian didn’t tell you that a vaccination might harm your cat then that would, in my view, be behaviour which was below the required standard demanded of a veterinarian. But the veterinarian will say that some vaccinations do harm cats and dogs and that they provided you with a leaflet or that there are signs in the clinic saying this or online. Or that one of the veterinary nurses warned you that vaccinations can be dangerous. This all comes out in court and you simply can’t prove causation i.e. that there’s been negligence andthat negligence caused injury.

Evidence

You are going to have to produce evidence in court that the misdiagnosis or poor treatment resulted in injury or death to your companion animal. I mention above that an expert witness may be needed to provide evidence about standards of care. That’s one part of the evidential chain but you will need more. There’s a story on one website about a cat who died because his owner believed that he ate a sharp chicken bone that fell out of a trashcan which his dog had knocked over.

His veterinarian said that the cat had an abscess in the mouth which the cat owner said was a poor diagnosis. The cat died and he called his veterinarian complaining. The veterinarian said that his cat had mouth cancer and to bury him in the backyard. Let’s say the man is right and that his cat did die of a perforated intestine because of eating a sharp bone. How’s he going to prove it? And if the case went to court perhaps the doctor would argue that the man’s dog is to blame for knocking over the trashcan or the man himself was to blame for not clearing up the trash lying around his home. Or the cat’s owner did not explain the problem with the trash can to his vet. These would potenitally be contributory negligence matters. The whole thing becomes muddy and blurred. In court anything can come out and there’ll be lots of barriers to success.

Defensive

Normally doctors defend malpractice lawsuits vigourously. They have an association to help protect them. They have insurance which pays for it all. It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall. You’ll start off fairly optimistic because you know the doctor misdiagnosed your cat’s illness. You know there was negligence. And then after several months of struggle you realise how hard it’s going to be. And it is more emotional distress for you.

Suing

The general advice is not to sue if you can fix the problem some other way. You should avoid court if you can for the reasons mentioned. The whole process of suing someone is emotionally draining and stressful. The world is uncertain enough already, so to add to that can be too challenging for a lot of people.

Conclusion

I have briefly looked at the barriers to suing a doctor for misdiagnosis or malpractice. I don’t want to paint too black a picture but realism is vital. If you can find some other solution such as discussing the matter with your doctor and asking him or her whether they can provide you with compensation (unlikely) it may be better for you. There may be a mediation scheme or process that can be followed. Mediation to a resolution in a dispute is better than hard suing. You need to get over the loss of life of your companion animal or their injury through poor treatment. It’s incredibly hurtful and a very difficult process compounded by the injustice. Suing your doctor may help emotionally but might make things worse.

P.S. This is not a comprehensive discussion. I am covering some points and the views are personal to me but I think that you’ll find what I have written chimes with the thoughts of many others. I am not advising not to sue, just presenting the reality of it.

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