Six years after dog dies, woman wins pet hospital lawsuit

CLEARWATER – On Friday, a jury ruled in favor of a woman who sued a pet hospital after her dog died in her care.

In 2007, Liza Baceols’ 4-year-old golden retriever Cody went to Noah’s Place Animal Medical Center to have his tail removed due to a large tumor. While awaiting surgery at Noah’s Place – now under a new owner – Cody bit his tail, went into cardiac arrest and died.

While this week’s lawsuit was a success for 40-year-old Baceols, there are more legal battles to come as she asks for more than is usually due to an owner who has negligently lost a pet.

“He was family to us, and that’s what (the court) needs to understand,” said Baceols, who works for Raymond James Financial.

The case initially went to court in 2011, but the jury found itself deadlocked after 11 hours of deliberation as it had to decide how much was owed to Baceols. At this week’s retrial, the jury found Noah’s Place had been grossly negligent, but another jury will decide how much Baceols should recover in a subsequent trial.

Bryce Spano, the attorney representing Noah’s Place and three vets – Jennifer Buird, David Hoch and John Hodges – declined to comment.

Under Florida law, owners can only recover the market value costs of replacing the lost pet. But Baceols believes she should get reparations for the pain and suffering she and her now 16-year-old son, Kyle, endured after losing Cody.

To get more than the usual amount, Baceols will have to prove that the behavior of the vets was unusually egregious, said Peter Fitzgerald, a professor at Stetson University College of Law and an expert in animal law.

Kenneth Newman, a veterinarian at Seminole and an expert witness for Baceols, hopes an outcome in his favor will encourage courts to make similar decisions in the future.

Ever since his dog, Gracie, was killed by a car several years ago, Newman has been pushing Gracie’s Law, which would factor in the intrinsic worth of pets in assessing damage.

“One of the major constraints in moving animal issues forward is that we continue to view animals as property, just like a chair and a pencil,” he said. “We can go beyond that without making them the same as humans.”

Some states already have legislation that says people can collect damages beyond the replacement value of a pet, including Illinois, Rhode Island and Tennessee, Fitzgerald noted.

Baceols has since adopted a new dog, a mixed breed named Wanda. Baceols has said that she will always love Cody, but she is ready to close this chapter in her life.

“I’m so emotional,” Baceols said. “I was never really able to cry, and now I can.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to reflect the following correction.

A judge has dismissed all lawsuits against veterinarians Jennifer Buird, David Hoch and John Hodges before the jury returns their verdict. A Pinellas County jury ruled on Friday that only Noah’s Place Animal Medical Center was responsible for the 2007 death of a dog awaiting surgery at the facility.

An article published on Saturday incorrectly reported the outcome of the trial.

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