Jury Finds Against Vets In Negligence Case

Practicing racetrack veterinarians throughout North America felt the chill of a $600,000 judgment brought on March 23 against two of their colleagues in a Southern Calif. case that centered around an antibiotic injection given to the 1993 Californian Stakes (gr. I) winner Latin American, a son of Riverman now based at Walmac Farm in Ky. and serving dual hemisphere stud duty in Brazil.

A 12-member jury found in favor of owners Mike Jarvis, Warren Williamson, and Robert Marshall, also the trainer, in their suit against Dr. Hector Prida and his associate, Dr. Helmuth Von Bluecher. The plaintiffs contended that Latin American's value plummeted after complications arose following an intravenous neck injection--administered by Prida shortly after the Californian--that allegedly caused a phlebitis. The swelling, according to plaintiffs testimony, in turn compromised Latin American's subsequent training and performance. After the Californian, Latin American raced twice more and ran poorly both times. A fractured cannon bone ended his career later that summer.

The defense maintained that the phlebitis did not occur until several weeks after the antibiotic injection, that several other veterinarians attended Latin American at one time or another during the period in question, and that he was administered more than one injection into the vein that suffered the phlebitis. "We were pretty flabbergasted the jury went the way it did," said Von Bluecher, a vet for 28 years. Prida has practiced for 33 years. "We thought the facts were laid out pretty clearly."

Steve R. Schwartz, representing the veterinarians, said an appeal of the judgment will be filed. "The decision, as far as we can tell, is totally inconsistent with and unsupported by the evidence," said Schwartz. "All the medical evidence in the case--including their own veterinarian--stated that they could not determine with a reasonable medical certainty how the phlebitis was caused, and that in any event it had absolutely no connection with the fractured leg."

"He's wrong," said attorney and Quarter Horse owner Ron Hermanson, who represented the plaintiffs on a contingency basis from the beginning of the case.

"The jury looked at the horse not as a piece of damaged property, but as a living thing--as if it was their own pet," Hermanson added. "They didn't have a lot of experience with going to races, but they understood the issues involved."

Latin American raced nine times as a 5-year-old in 1993. In addition to the Californian, he won the New Orleans Handicap (gr. III) and Edmond Handicap at Remington Park. "His value was assessed at $1 million after the Californian," Jarvis said. "Their expert valued him at $400,000 after his racing career ended. That's where the $600,000 came from.

"This was a very painful and drawn out ordeal," Jarvis noted. "I'm sure I'll hear people say we got away with one, or that we were able to fool the jury. But I truly believe that the shot destroyed his career. I'm not in this business to litigate. But if there is a case where you've been wronged, you should be able to seek some justice. The jury believed us."

When Dr. Gary Norwood, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, heard of the verdict, his first reaction was, "It must have been a leftover O. J. jury. It sounds like they made a lot out of what was an accidental or unavoidable situation. We're talking about something that vets do every day, and literally anyone could get in a situation like this," Norwood went on. "If you do enough vena punctures, you're going to get a leakage somewhere. So this is an eye-opener, and kind of shocking. It could have a very chilling effect. What's the next step? Do you get informed consent from a trainer on every one of these things?"

"This decision will effect every equine veterinarian in the country," said Dr. Rick Arthur, Southern California-based vet and former president of the AAEP. "Most malpractice cases don't have merit and really come down on the side of the veterinarian."

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