Posted by Richard Brooks, Partner
Equine Veterinary Negligence
Most equine vets are well respected and enjoy a great relationship with clients but sometimes things go wrong. Can an owner sue for equine veterinary negligence if they do?
Horse owners engage vets for two primary purposes – to treat their own horses and for pre-purchase vettings. In a small number of cases vets make bad judgments leaving horse owners out of pocket and wondering if they can make a claim.
In any professional activity things can go wrong. If this happens, the first thing to do is to make a complaint in writing to the vet. It should request a full written explanation. Their response may be helpful in a number of ways.
One of the next steps is to get your ‘expert’ on side. Any Judge will need an expert to explain to them what happened and then the Judge will decide (1) was the vet negligent? Did they act in a way that no reasonable vet would have acted? Crucially the Judge will then have to decide (2) if that negligence actually led to the damage you complain of. It may not have done – no matter what the vet did the outcome might have been the same.
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS)
If the vet has behaved unprofessionally, they might be subject to a professional complaint to the RCVS. This can be done instead of or as a pre-cursor to suing through the Courts.
Unfortunately in the eyes of the law an animal is simply an item of property. If an animal is damaged or destroyed there will be a crude assessment of the difference in value of the horse before and after the equine veterinary negligence. If the horse is worth a fortune the claim could be extremely large. Conversely, your claim could be quite small with added wasted expenses.
It is very much a debatable point whether a Judge would award any compensation for distress that often accompanies damage to or death of a horse.
To secure compensation you must show not only that the vet didn’t make the ‘best’ decision, but also that no reasonable body of vets would have acted in the same way. This means that vets (like any professionals) are in a sense permitted to get things wrong. They do not have to be perfect. Only if we can show that no reasonable body of vets would have acted the same unfortunate manner, or made the same decisions will you succeed. That is a high hurdle to get over but not insurmountable.
In one successful case, what should have been a simple procedure to remove an umbilical hernia by use of a ring in fact went disastrously wrong. The vet chose to perform surgery instead but even then that should have been pretty routine stuff. The stitches and staples burst open twice with intestines everywhere before the foal was transferred to another vet and saved. The owner was awarded compensation and costs.
Another case involved a specialist equine vet who chose to inject steroids around the spine of a racehorse. The result was catastrophic because the horse went on to develop laminitis (a weakness of the bone within the hoof) and never raced again. The owner received compensation and costs after a successful mediation.
If you have reason to believe that your equine vet has been negligent do not hesitate to contact us for specialist advice.
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