Defense Verdict Exonerates Veterinarian and Animal Hospital in Malpractice & Fraud Trial Seeking $900,000 in Damages

Congrats to Michael Parme and Casey Otis for their 11-1 defense verdict in their 4-day jury trial. This lawsuit arose out of the alleged veterinary malpractice of an animal hospital and its attending veterinarians.

Plaintiff  claimed that the defendants failed to diagnose a lip mass on her nine year old golden-retriever. The lip mass had been present for upwards of eight visits to defendant animal hospital between a two-year period. The lip mass was later found to be a mast cell tumor which developed into metastatic cancer and spread to the golden retriever’s lymph nodes. After undergoing extensive chemotherapy and surgery at another veterinary facility, the golden retriever ultimately succumbed to her cancer. Plaintiff alleged that the medical records did not definitively indicate which diagnostic tests had been offered, recommended, and/or declined for the lip mass. Accordingly, Plaintiff claimed that the records were indicative of the animal hospital’s negligence in that they allowed a cancer to grow despite plaintiff’s overly-cautious habit of taking her dog to the vet 3-4 times per year. The animal hospital defendants argued that the notes were adequate and sufficient enough to allow for a practitioner to understand which treatment plans had been offered and declined by the owner.

In addition to her malpractice claim, plaintiff alleged two separate theories of fraud against the animal hospital defendants for which she sought punitive damages. She claimed that a treating doctor concealed material facts related to the appropriate diagnostic testing in order to offer additional, unnecessary procedures that would only enrich herself. Second, plaintiff claimed that defendant animal hospital fraudulently misrepresented it would assist plaintiff with her dog’s continuing cancer treatments but that defendant animal hospital never followed through nor intended to help Plaintiff.

Plaintiff’s final pre-trial demand was $130,000, down significantly from her initial demand of $900,000. The animal hospital defendants made a CCP 998 pre-trial statutory offer of $9,500, which plaintiff failed to accept.

Trial began on February 26, 2020 in the Los Angeles Superior Court. On Day 3 of trial, the jury heard expert testimony from plaintiff and the animal hospital defendants. Plaintiff’s expert is a professor as well as the chief of surgery at a leading veterinary institution. The defendants’ expert is a general veterinary practitioner with over 38 years’ experience owning and operating his privately held veterinary facilities.

Plaintiff’s expert had two major opinions: 1. The animal hospital medical records were not sufficient to provide continuity of treatment; and 2. animal hospital should have proposed and performed an FNA (fine needle aspirate) – a diagnostic procedure which involves poking a needle into the mass and aspirating cells which are then sent to the pathologist for diagnosis. Plaintiff’s expert claimed that an FNA is the standard of care and that it should have been offered prior to any other diagnostic testing such as a biopsy which was the preferred course of treatment by the animal hospital defendants. Notably, however, plaintiff’s expert testified that recommending a biopsy is not below the standard of care and that it is far more diagnostic than an FNA which can often come back inconclusive. On the stand, plaintiff’s expert also talked about how he does training for the animal hospital defendant veterinarians which was very compelling testimony to some of the jurors.

The animal hospital defendants’ expert talked at length about his 38 years of veterinary medicine and how he identifies as a practitioner, not a researcher. He opined that neither defendant animal hospital nor its treating veterinarians breached the standard of care, and that a biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosing a mass. Defendants’ expert testified that due to the size and location of the golden retriever’s lip mass, a practitioner who is being conscious of customer finances would reasonably forgo FNA and propose a biopsy. He further opined that in his expert opinion the notes were adequate in the medical records for him or any other qualified veterinarian to understand the plan for treatment and the owner’s decision to decline treatment.

Before closing arguments, the judge ruled on the animal hospital defendants’ Motion for Non-Suit and eliminated both of plaintiff’s fraud claims and associated punitive damages claim due to the lack of sufficient evidence. Only the veterinary malpractice claim was left to the jury.

Closing arguments concluded at 3:00 p.m. on March 2, 2020.  During plaintiff’s heartfelt close, she alluded to her initial $900,000 demand despite a lack of evidence to support her damages claim. The jury deliberated for approximately an hour and a half before returning an 11-1 defense verdict finding that the defendants were not negligent in the diagnosis and treatment of plaintiff’s golden retriever.

March 2, 2020