Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Defense Verdict in Case Involving Animal’s Death Due to Veterinarian’s Negligence

In a typical Knoxville wrongful death case, a family is seeking compensation for the loss of a loved one whom they believe died as the result of the negligence of an individual, corporation, or governmental entity. Damages may include funeral and burial expenses, medical bills, lost earning capacity of the decedent, and related losses. Under Tennessee law, a family may also seek compensation for the loss of a nonhuman family member, i.e., a pet (or a farm animal), in some situations. However, the amount of monetary damages available in such a case are typically very limited unless the animal itself was very valuable.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs in a recent case were the owners of a 10-year-old cat who allegedly died due to the negligence of the defendant veterinarians, who placed a feeding tube into the animal’s trachea rather than her esophagus, thus sending food into her lungs (instead of into her stomach, where it was supposed to go) and causing her to aspirate. The plaintiffs asserted a wrongful death action against the defendants, seeking compensation for their loss.

The defendants admitted that one of them had been negligent in the placement of the feeding tube, but they disputed the damages to which the plaintiffs were entitled. The trial court found in the defendants’ favor at trial, holding that the defendants should not be held legally liable for the animal’s wrongful death because she suffered from an illness which would probably have claimed her life anyway. According to the trial court, Tennessee did not recognize a cause of action for “loss of chance,” and there was a 79% mortality rate for the animal under the circumstances.

Decision on Appeal

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court had erred in concluding that they had failed to prove causation in fact and in dismissing their claims against one of the veterinarians in her individual capacity. The Court of Appeal of Tennessee at Jackson agreed that the trial court had been in error as to certain issues. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for a determination of damages.

In so holding, the court of appeals noted that the evidence was undisputed that the plaintiff’s animal died as a result of being bed through the tube that was improperly placed in her trachea and that, in their responses to the plaintiffs’ requests for admissions, one of the defendants had admitted that the negligent placement of the feeding tube was the direct and proximate cause of the animal’s death. Thus, the plaintiffs had established but-for causation, despite the trial court’s decision to the contrary.

Under Tennessee law, a cat such as the one who passed away in this case is considered to be private property of his or her owners, and the owners were entitled to recover damages for the animal’s wrongful death. However, under Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-17-103, there is a $5000 cap on noneconomic damages and no noneconomic damages are permitted against a licensed veterinarian such as the defendants herein. On remand, the trial court was to determine the appropriate amount of economic damages due the plaintiffs, taking into consideration any monetary losses associated with their loss, such as medical bills incurred for the animals’s treatment and the cost of replacing the animal.

With regard to the issue of one of the veterinarian’s liability for negligence in her individual capacity, the appellate court agreed with the lower tribunal that there had been no evidence offered upon which that veterinary could be held personally liable.

Schedule a Consultation with a Tennessee Wrongful Death Attorney

If you have questions that you need to ask an experienced Tennessee personal injury and wrongful death attorney, please call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657. We have offices in both Maryville and Knoxville.

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