Why suing over your dog's death is costly and difficult

Several weeks ago, an Instagram-famous dog named Chloe the Mini Frenchie died because of a medical error at BluePearl Veterinary. As her story spread across the internet it resonated not just with her fans, but with other pet owners who say they believe their animal companions also died because of mistakes made by a vet.

Kew Gardens, Queens-based attorney Richard Rosenthal, who calls himself "The Dog Lawyer," gets several calls a week from people who believe their pets were the victim of veterinary malpractice. But he takes few, if any, of the cases, because of laws making it difficult for pet owners to recover substantial damages.

"Unfortunately our legal concept of dogs is to a large extent from the 1800s: dogs are property and therefore replaceable," he said.

"You can't recover for the animal's pain and suffering because it's considered property, you cannot recover for your own grief or emotional distress," Rosenthal said. "What [pet owners] can recover in New York is their out-of-pocket expenses and the cost of an equivalent dog,. If it's a purebred maybe you're talking $1,000, $1,500."

That's likely far less than you'll have to pay to build your case. Costs include a necropsy (an autopsy for animals), hiring an expert to review the case, and legal fees—none of which can be recovered in court.

Rosenthal said some judges have started to allow pet owners to recover costs they spent over the years on the dog for things like training and vet care. People whose pets were service animals may also be able to recover more damages, but Rosenthal said most people will have difficulty recovering any significant amount of money. 

Christopher Berry, a staff attorney with the Animal League Defense Fund, agreed.

"The laws need to change to catch up with the times," Berry said, referring to the sense of animals as more like family members than property in today's culture.

Berry writes amicus briefs on behalf of the ALDF in animal cases that are before appeals courts, arguing our animals are worth more than we paid for them. Any change in the law would have to start at the state level, and while berry isn't aware of any legislation in the works to redefine our pets as other than property, he said he is seeing a shift overall in how the courts recognize animals.

"We have seen all around the country, with regards to animals, a surge in animal protection laws," Berry said. "And I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that we'll see more laws addressing this very concern."

If you think your pet was the victim of veterinary malpractice, attorneys say you are not powerless. Rosenthal said people can file complaints with the American Veterinary Association. He also advises pet owners to share their experience on social media and websites like Yelp! to let others know your concerns.

Lastly, Rosenthal said if you believe you can prove negligence on the part of the veterinarian, you may consider bringing a case in small claims court.