A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Plaintiff Able To Assert Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress Claim Against Vet For Decapitating Deceased Cat To Perform Rabies Test

By on April 9, 2021 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Mario Quesada brought his sick cat Amor to the defendant veterinarian Red Bank Veterinary Hospital where he was diagnosed with saddle thrombus which necessitated euthanization of the cat. Plaintiff was overcome with emotion and was permitted to say goodbye to Amor. During the euthanization process, the cat bit one of the nurses and the vet advised plaintiff that a brain tissue sample would be required to determine whether Amor had rabies. When Amor was returned to plaintiff, he had been decapitated and his head disposed of. In Quesada v. Compassion First Pet Hosp. & Red Bank Veterinary Hosp., 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 552 (App. Div. Apr. 1, 2021), the issue was whether the plaintiff could sue the vet for negligent infliction of emotional distress for decapitating his cat.

Plaintiff had explained to the vet that Amor was an indoor cat and was never outdoors and had been vaccinated. The vet refused to speak to Amor’s regular vet or obtain his vaccination records, insisting that, pursuant to state law, a brain tissue sample was required to check for rabies.

The vet told the plaintiff that Amor’s body would be released the following day to the Hamilton Pet Meadow for cremation per plaintiff’s request. Plaintiff informed the vet that he intended to display his cat’s body for viewing prior to cremation. At no time did the vet advise the plaintiff what was entailed in obtaining a brain tissue sample.

The cat’s body could not be released until a negative rabies test result was obtained. When the negative rabies test was finally returned, the cat’s body was released to the plaintiff who requested the opportunity to view his cat’s body. Upon the viewing, the plaintiff learned that Amor had been decapitated and his head was disposed of as medical waste.

Plaintiff became extremely agitated, going “into a state of shock, crying and screaming,” in front of the pet cemetery’s staff. He called the local police and asked to be connected to grief counselling services. Plaintiff called the vet and asked why he was not informed that the cat would be decapitated and an employee did tell him that there were ways to take a brain sample without decapitating the whole body but that the vet always simply sends the whole head. However, plaintiff had not been offered this option.

As a result of the decapitation, plaintiff alleged that he developed severe mental health problems which required ongoing professional counselling and medications. He had insomnia, inability to work, outbursts of anger, flashbacks, hypervigilance, panic attacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and impulses toward self-harm.

Plaintiff filed suit, alleging one count of negligent infliction of emotional distress, six counts of negligence, and one count of bailment. The defendant vet filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of a failure to state a claim, which the trial court judge granted. This appeal ensued.

First, the Appellate Division noted that the motion judge had applied the wrong legal standard in analyzing plaintiff’s claim. The court should have analyzed the claim as a “direct” negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, as opposed to a “bystander” negligent infliction of emotional distress claim as established by Portee v. Jaffee.

A direct claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress can exist “where the plaintiff claims proximately-caused damages as a result of a breach of duty owed by the defendant.” The plaintiff must establish that: “(a) defendant owed a duty of reasonable care to plaintiff; (b) defendant breached that duty: (c) plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress: and (d) defendant’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injury.”

The Court found that the defendant vet “owed plaintiff a duty to return his cat’s body in an acceptable condition for the viewing at the Hamilton Pet Meadow.” Further, the Appellate Division found that it was foreseeable that plaintiff “would have a serious mental reaction to seeing his cat’s decapitated body upon arrival at the viewing.” The Court held that the vet breached their duty by decapitating his cat without fully informing him of possible alternative testing procedures or requesting that the decapitated head be returned intact after testing.

The Appellate Division ruled that the plaintiff should have the opportunity through discovery to establish that he suffered “severe mental distress.”  Thus, the Court held that the plaintiff had stated a direct claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress that was “sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.”

Additionally, the Court found that plaintiff stated a viable claim for bailment. Plaintiff had left the cat’s body with the vet and, while it was in their possession, it was returned in a “damaged condition” without obtaining plaintiff’s consent to remove and dispose of his cat’s head, which was avoidable had the vet arranged for the cat to be tested for rabies in a way that the entire body could be returned.

Hence, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court decision and remanded it back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is expanding her practice to include serving as mediator for NJ or PA civil cases. Ms. Ramos recently completed the required 40-hour Civil Mediation Training Program conducted by the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators (NJAPM). Completion of this program meets the training requirements for Rule 1:40 Civil, General Equity, and Probate Mediation Roster of the Superior Court, as maintained by the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts.

Please contact Ms. Ramos at 856-914-2052 or bramos@capehart.com if you wish to retain her services as a mediator for any civil litigation, including personal injury, construction, employment, probate, or chancery matters.



About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

*No aspect of this advertisement has been submitted to or approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.


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