Every pet owner’s worst nightmare is for something to go wrong to their companion animal while in the care of a veterinarian. Or alternatively, witnessing their pet be harmed or even killed by another animal. Unfortunately, the legal system offers little protection to people who experience the loss of a pet in this way, leading to the need of creative legal advocacy or those looking for a solution to this issue. What options are available – and unavailable – to pet owners in New Jersey?
Veterinary Malpractice: There is currently no cause of action for “veterinary malpractice” in New Jersey. While a bill was proposed in 2016, and again in 2017, creating rights of action for damages in veterinary malpractice situations, the bill never made it to committee and has not been reintroduced. The bill proposed pecuniary damages for claims of veterinary malpractice but did not establish any right to emotional distress damages. The future of a legislative solution to the lack of veterinarian malpractice claims remains unclear.
Loss of Property: Under current New Jersey law, animals are classified as property. However, existing caselaw does recognize that pets have a “special subjective value” beyond that of typical property. Houseman v. Dare., 405 N.J. Super. 538 (App. Div. 2009). Despite this, the Court has clearly denied the right of pet owners to recoup emotional distress damages arising from the loss of their pets. McDougall v. Lamm, 211 N.J. 203 (2012). What does this mean?
Pet owners who lose a pet due to the negligence of another can only recover the fair market value of the pet, in the same way as if an actual item of furniture had been destroyed by another. If there were veterinarian bills associated with the loss, then these may likely also be included. In most cases for ordinary owners of companion animals, the damages will likely not rise above $15,000. Claims in New Jersey for monetary damages between $3,000 and $15,000 are filed in the Special Civil Part, a part of the Civil Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. In either event, while the amount of damages a pet owner may be able to recoup are not particularly high, the option to seek these damages is certainly available.
Consumer Affairs Complaint: In the case of suspected “veterinary malpractice”, a pet owner’s only goal may be to prevent a similar situation from happening to somebody else, rather than seek money damages. The NJ Office of the Attorney General handles Complaints made to the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. In this process, the pet owner files a Complaint with Consumer Affairs, and the Division reviews the Complaint while requesting a response from the veterinarian. Depending on the outcome of this process, hearings may be conducted and the veterinarian or complainant could be required to appear to provide additional information. In certain circumstances where a veterinarian the Board determines that the veterinarian engaged in numerous or particularly egregious instances of malpractice, the Board has the authority to revoke the veterinarian’s license to practice.
No amount of money will ever heal the wrongful loss of a pet. However, an animal law attorney may be able to assist you in reaching the best outcome for you under the limitations of the current laws. Do not hesitate to reach out to us for further insight if you have experienced a wrongful loss and are seeking legal assistance to resolve same.