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It’s Really Hard to Sue a Vet in New York. Pet Owners Are Pushing a Bill to Change That.

New York is one of a few states that categorize pets as objects not worth more than a few hundred dollars. Advocates say treating them as sentient beings would enhance the ability to seek compensatory damages if they are mistreated.

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Charlie Chaplin died a few days after a visit to a 24/7 veterinarian clinic in Brooklyn.

Courtesy of Francesca Khalifa

When Francesca Khalifa picked up her beloved cat from a Brooklyn veterinary clinic after an emergency visit for stomach issues last fall, she couldn’t understand why he was suddenly limping and a nail on his back paw was ripped apart. 

A staffer at VERG, the Park Slope clinic on 4th Avenue, assured her that it was nothing serious, according to Khalifa’s account of the Oct. 3, 2021 visit. 

Five days later, Charlie Chaplin, her 13-year-old tuxedo cat, was so sick he had to be euthanized. 

A necropsy revealed he’d been suffering from a fast moving kidney cancer that was never diagnosed or properly treated, according to Khalifa, who also contends veterinary staff at the clinic’s after hours emergency room injured his leg during a botched X-ray. 

But Khalifa and other pet parents who allege abuse or malpractice by veterinarians are left with few options for recompense. 

Under New York State law, animals are treated as property rarely worth more than several hundred dollars, according to lawyers who handle such cases.  

“There should be more accountability on the part of vets. It’s not good,” said Karen Copeland, who specializes in animal and housing discrimination cases. “They give vets so much latitude. It’s pretty incredible.” 

New York is one of only 13 states that categorize pets that way. The other states consider them as at least sentient beings. That gives pets higher legal status than mere possessions and allows owners an ability to seek compensatory damages if they are mistreated.  

Even when there is an investigation, veterinarians in New York are also rarely disciplined for faulty care and the probes can drag on for years, an analysis by THE CITY in 2019 found. Multiple readers have since reached out with similar complaints about alleged malpractice and slow moving investigations. 

Now, Khalifa and other animal advocates are pushing for a long stalled bill in Albany to add some measure of pet justice. They hope that the people who adopted dogs and cats during the pandemic who have now learned about the current legal setup will finally spur state lawmakers to take action. 

Vets in the Fight

The legislation, which would allow for legal damages after “the wrongful injury or death of a companion animal,” dates back at least 20 years -– and the State Senate version excludes veterinarians. 

Nevertheless, the measure has always been strenuously opposed by the NYS Veterinary Medical Society, which represents more than 2,000 animal doctors across the state.

The group contends that the legislation would increase costs and make basic pet care available only to wealthy owners. 

A golden doodle makes new friends at the Park Slope Armory. Oct. 31, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The organization also points out that veterinarians currently use something commonly referred to as a basic “standard of care” to treat pets. If an owner is unable to afford that level of care veterinarians can lower the costs with alternative treatments or perhaps exclude a few expensive tests. 

If the law was changed, veterinarians would always be worried about being sued if they didn’t provide top line care, according to the umbrella group. 

“That would lead to a significant portion of animals having to be euthanized,” predicted Tim Atkinson, executive director of the Society. He also noted there’s a shortage of vets and argued that any law changes would exacerbate that problem. 

On Tuesday, the group held its annual lobbying day in Albany, pushing state lawmakers to block any changes to the legal status of pets and for a host of other legislative issues. 

The VMS also argued against proposed legislation to restrict so-called bark softening surgical procedures and an “antimicrobial” proposal that they say “would inhibit or restrict the ability of veterinarians to properly prescribe antibiotics to their patients.” 

Still, some veterinarians support change. 

“I’d love it if they were considered sentient animals. I don’t care if my insurance goes up,” said Dr. Natara Loose, who conducted the necropsy on Charlie. 

Loose, who practices in Bushwick, said some of her colleagues “charge astronomical prices and are not practicing standard of care.”

That sometimes includes failing to perform X-rays of teeth when doing dentist work, a basic precautionary step, she said.  

Justice for Charlie

As for Charlie, Khalifa has filed a complaint against the veterinary practice in Small Claims Court. The case — capped at $5,000 — is scheduled for next month. 

Khalifa, an acclaimed concert pianist, has also filed a complaint with the state’s Office of Professional Discipline, which oversees veterinarians, records show. The case is pending. 

A spokesperson for VERG maintained Charlie was given proper treatment and said the cat injured his nail when it got caught in a restraint towel as he was held down for an X-ray. 

“The owner was made aware of that,” said VERG spokesperson James Judge. He contended Khalifa was told the cat would need additional tests but says she never brought him back to the clinic or responded to vet calls.

When Khalifa adopted Charlie in 2015 he had been in foster care for almost a year and a half. “He was deemed unadoptable,” she recalled, noting he lived on the streets for most of his life. 

Francesca Khalifa and Charlie Chaplin,

Courtesy of Francesca Khalifa

“He was a very shy cat but a sweetheart with me,” she said. 

Before his death, he suffered from kidney disease that required routine medical checkups every three months. 

When he suddenly began repeatedly throwing up she brought him to the VERG emergency room on Oct. 1, 2021. The bloodwork showed he had anemia, a lack of healthy red blood cells. 

Khalifa says medical staff later discovered he ingested pieces of litter. They released him but three days later he struggled to breathe and Khalifa had him euthanized in her home. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said about her struggle to get “justice” for him. 

“I do strongly believe if we want to better ourselves as a society, we really need to take a hard look at how we treat the vulnerable, the children, the elderly, and animals,” she said. “Because they depend on us. And the way we treat them is appalling.”

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