A California state appeals court has ruled in a fatalmalpractice case brought against a veterinarian that a pet owner isnot entitled to recover emotional damages.

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The 4th District, Division 3 in Santa Ana, Calif., said in partthat “permitting plaintiffs to recover emotional distress damagesfor harm to a pet would likely increase litigation and have asignificant impact on the courts' limited resources.”

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It also noted that California lawdoes not permit families who have lost children through malpracticeany recovery for loss of companionship damages.

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Dr. Kent McClure, general counsel for Animal Health Institute,said the case is important because “if you had the same litigationdrivers in pet health care as you have in human health care, therewould be a substantial increase in costs across the board.”

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Specifically, he said, medical malpractice premiums would rise“and you would be faced with the same defensive medicine practicesthat you see in human health care.”

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Philip Goldberg, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon inWashington, D.C., said the decision in McMahon v. Craig isimportant “because it thoroughly rejected all of the plaintiffs'arguments and is the first such published opinion inCalifornia.”

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His firm submitted a “friend of the court” brief on behalf ofthe California Veterinary Medical Association, Animal HealthInstitute, American Animal Hospital Association, American KennelClub, Cat Fanciers' Association, American Pet Products Association,American Veterinary Medical Association, and Pet Industry JointAdvisory Council.

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The plaintiff in the case–Gail McMahon, a resident of OrangeCounty, Calif.–sued Dr. Diane Craig and her veterinary practice forveterinary malpractice and intentional infliction of emotionaldistress after Ms. McMahon's dog, “Tootsie,” a purebred Maltese,died after undergoing surgery.

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Mr. Goldberg called the decision “a significant win for animalwelfare as pets would lose out if owners were able to collectemotional harm damages.”

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He said if the decision had approved emotional damages, the“cost of pet care would increase with this new liability, causingmany owners to be unable or unwilling to provide their pets withnecessary and proper medical treatment.”

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Mr. Goldberg noted that in another case the Vermont SupremeCourt had reached the same conclusion, and appellate courts inabout 30 states have now rejected claims of emotional damage.

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In its opinion, the California court said that “extendingemotional distress damages to owners of companion pets based onveterinary malpractice would have unknown consequences on both thecost and availability of veterinary care.”

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The court's main conclusion was that “a veterinarian'smalpractice does not directly harm the owner in a manner creatingliability for emotional distress.”

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At the same time, the court held, emotional distress damages fornegligence are not available to Ms. McMahon “because she wasneither a witness nor a direct victim of defendants' negligentacts.”

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The court said that it recognized “the love and loyalty a dogprovides creates a strong emotional bond between an owner and hisor her dog.”

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However, the court added, “given [that] California law does notallow parents to recover for the loss of companionship of theirchildren, we are constrained not to allow a pet owner to recoverfor loss of companionship of a pet.”

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Therefore, the court found that “regardless of how foreseeable apet owner's emotional distress may be in losing a beloved animal,we discern no basis in policy or reason to impose a duty on aveterinarian to avoid causing emotional distress to the owner ofthe animal being treated, while not imposing such a duty on adoctor to the parents of a child receiving treatment.”

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Dr. McClure said the decision is another victory for pet ownerswho depend on affordable care for their pet. He also explained thatowners can already be fully compensated in these lawsuits.

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“The current legal system already provides fair compensation toaggrieved pet owners,” he said. “Owners can be fully compensatedfor their out-of-pocket expenses and for punitive damage awardswhere there is an intentional malicious act. These new damages areunnecessary to owners and harmful to pets.”

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