Veterinary Malpractice: Suing a Veterinarian for Emotional Distress in Florida
Under Florida law, dogs and other pets are considered personal property. This means that, in general, when a veterinarian negligently causes the death of your dog, you may recover the replacement value of the dog. If veterinary malpractice causes injury to your pet, you may recover expenses related to reasonable medical costs.
Are Pets Mere Personal Property?
But pet owners know that pets are more than mere property. As pet owners, we know that our dogs and cats are not fungible in nature, like pencils, for instance. We mourn the loss of a beloved animal companion similar to the loss of a friend or family member. Pet owners have bonds with their animals that they don’t have with inanimate objects.
Nevertheless, in Florida, as in most other states, our animal companions are treated under the law much the same as the law treats inanimate objects: as property. Therefore, under most circumstances, a dog owner who loses his or her pet through negligent veterinary malpractice in Florida will not be compensated for emotional damages (pain and suffering).
Emotional Damages for Veterinary Malpractice: Florida’s “Impact Rule”
The reason most dog owners will not be compensated for their emotional distress in cases of veterinary malpractice has to do with Florida’s “impact rule.” Under Florida’s impact rule, a person claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress must demonstrate that the emotional distress he or she suffered came about because of some type of physical impact with the plaintiff.
Florida courts make an exception to the impact rule when the psychological trauma and mental distress the plaintiff experiences are the result of seeing or otherwise directly perceiving a close family member get injured by someone’s negligence. Nevertheless, pets are not considered family members under the law; they are considered personal property. Therefore, this exception to the impact rule will not assist animal owners.
Intentional Infliction of Injury to the Pet
Intentional infliction of injury to someone’s pet is a different story. In at least one decision in Florida, the court held that when someone intentionally injures or kills an animal, there is no need to prove a physical impact on the plaintiff.
But the intentional infliction of emotional distress still requires a malicious intent to cause severe emotional distress. The intent involved is more than just the intent to cause the death of the animal; it is the specific intent to cause extreme emotional distress to the animal owner.
In the 1964 case of La Porte v. Associated Indeps., Inc., the Florida Supreme Court stated, “Without discussing the affinity between ‘sentimental value and mental suffering’ we feel that the affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing and that the malicious destruction of the pet provides an element of damage for which the owner should recover.”
Veterinary Malpractice in Florida
Florida, like most other states, treats pets as personal property. Because pets are personal property, compensation for veterinary malpractice is tied to the market value of the animal for replacement or the reasonable cost of medical treatment for an injury.
Compensation for negligent infliction of emotion distress on the pet owner is not permitted due to Florida’s impact rule. Compensation for intentional infliction of emotional distress will be allowed only with proof that the veterinarian specifically acted with malicious intent to inflict severe emotional distress on the pet owner.
Sources: Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So. 2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995)(holding that pets are personal property under Florida law); Kennedy v. Byas, 867 So. 2d 1195 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004)(ruling that Florida’s “impact rule” prevents recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress in veterinary malpractice cases without proof of physical impact on the plaintiff pet owner); La Porte v. Associated Indeps., Inc., 867 So. 2d 1195 (Fla. 1964).