Good Dogs, Bad Medicine?

Marc Bluestone was devastated when his sandy-brown mutt, Shane, died on April 2, 1999. In January he'd taken her to a vet hospital in Fountain Valley, Calif., for treatment of chronic seizures. By the time Shane went home--more than two months and $21,000 later--she had suffered liver disease, internal bleeding and a failed immune system. The doctors at All-Care Animal Referral Center treated her with everything from a blood transfusion to radiation, says Bluestone. Four days after she was discharged, Shane took a turn for the worse and died in the car as he was rushing her back to the hospital. Bluestone consulted a lawyer and was stunned to learn that in the eyes of California law, Shane was worth $100, what he had paid for her at the local shelter. "The way I feel, she is part of me and I am a part of her," says Bluestone, who hopes the vet will have to pay millions if Bluestone wins a malpractice suit scheduled for September.

Under the law, pets have long been viewed as property or chattel with a value equal to what it costs to replace them. Bluestone's bid for damages may be optimistic, but his case demonstrates that courts are finally recognizing the sentimental value people have for their pets. The Orange County judge who will preside over the trial has already ruled that Bluestone has the right to sue for emotional distress. Tim McElroy, the CFO of All-Care, denies there was any malpractice and describes Bluestone's suit as "frivolous."

It wasn't long ago that many courts refused even to hear these types of cases, but more and more plaintiffs are winning enough damages to buy a pet horse. In 1997 a Kentucky jury awarded $15,000 to an owner whose German shepherd, Sheba, bled to death from a botched surgery. In January 2000 a judge in southern California awarded a woman $27,699 for suffering to her Rottweiler caused by bungled dental repairs. "People don't bring animals into their homes because they want to acquire property," says Barbara Newell, an attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Judges are beginning to acknowledge that obvious fact."

The courts appear to be taking their cue from a growing pets' rights movement around the country. Boulder, Colo., officially changed the term animal "owner" to "guardian" last year. In Tennessee, a pet owner can now sue for up to $4,000 for the wrongful death of a furry companion. "Hopefully, it will help people from behaving irresponsibly," says state Sen. Stephen Cohen, who sponsored the bill after his Shih Tzu, T-Bo, was killed by a neighbor's dog. "Losing a loved one is not the same as breaking a plate or a chair."

Vets are worried that if the trend continues, their premiums for malpractice insurance--now typically $162 annually--will skyrocket. "Should people be able to sue for $2 million or $3 million if a cat died because something went wrong?" says Dr. Arthur Tennyson, of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "I don't think so." But Bluestone is determined to make someone pay for the "12 beautiful, precious years" of life with Shane he estimates were taken from him. Justice for his pet, says Bluestone, is his "mission forever."