ST. PETERSBURG — To Liza Baceols, Cody wasn't just a dog.
The 4-year-old golden retriever was family to the single mother and her young son. Which is why, after Cody was allegedly misdiagnosed, ate his own tail off and eventually died under Noah's Place 24-Hour Medical Center's care, she wanted someone to pay.
Baceols and her attorneys at Puzzanghera Law Offices filed a lawsuit against the owner and two employees of Noah's Place in December 2008, a year after Cody's death. Now, three years later, the unusual case finally goes to trial today.
Three years after she filed the suit, "I still feel just as passionately about Cody's death as I did then," said Baceols, 38. "Mainly it's about doing the right thing. Now that it's going to trial, I'm ecstatic."
Getting the case before a jury is already a small victory for Baceols and her attorneys. In Florida, like much of the rest of the country, pets such as dogs are considered property. By law, recovery for the loss of a pet is the fair market value of the animal. Generally, the owner is not entitled to pain and suffering.
But over the years, and especially recently, there has been a shift in reasoning. Last month in Texas, an appeals court allowed a dog owner to recover sentimental value damages for a mistakenly euthanized dog, the first of such rulings in Texas history. In St. Petersburg, a local lawyer recently sued the city after a police officer shot and killed his golden retriever, who had escaped from his yard and snapped at the officer when she tried to lure him into a patrol car. St. Petersburg police determined the shooting was justified, but the police chief implemented policy changes in the department's handling of dogs.
Some argue that lawsuits awarding damages for pet deaths can open the door for too much litigation against veterinarians, or people who accidentally hit animals with their cars, or other common tragedies.
Still, the law doesn't match modern attitudes toward pets, argues one expert witness planning to testify in Baceols' case, and civil lawsuits like this are becoming necessary.
"With 90 percent of pet owners believing pets are family, the laws need to be updated," said Dr. Kenneth Newman, a St. Petersburg veterinarian who lost a dog in 2008 when a driver backed into him and his Labrador retriever. He hesitated to testify in the upcoming lawsuit, but eventually decided it was the right thing, he said.
In Baceols' suit, she claims she took her dog Cody to Noah's Place, 2050 62nd Ave. N, in October 2007 for routine shots. While there, Cody was diagnosed with a tumor on his tail.
After treatment didn't work, Baceols brought Cody back for a tail amputation in November 2007. She dropped him off, she said, and was told when she called about five hours later that there had been a "complication."
Cody had not been properly supervised, she claims in the lawsuit, and was not wearing a protective cone-shaped "e-collar" even though the vet staff knew he needed one to keep him from chewing his tail.
Cody chewed his tail off, ingested it, then threw it up. A veterinarian performed surgery to treat the wound, Baceols said, but Cody didn't appear to recover normally and later went into cardiac arrest and died.
"That's not something we've been able to move on from," Baceols said of herself and her son, Kyle, now 15. "Hopefully, there will be some closure after the trial."
Baceols named three members of the Noah's Place staff in the suit, claiming their negligence resulted in lost wages, lost companionship and the costs of replacing Cody. She continues to suffer "mental, physical and nervous pain and suffering," the lawsuit says. The suit is seeking more than $15,000 in damages.
The defendants — veterinarians John Hodges, Jennifer Buird and David Hoch — are no longer affiliated with Noah's Place. Hodges sold the business last year, Buird moved to Alabama and Hoch is practicing in Winter Haven, according to Baceols' attorney Crystal Turner.
Lawyer Bryce Spano, who represents all three, declined to comment, saying any prior media coverage of the trial could interfere with jury selection.
Jury selection begins today and opening statements are expected to begin Tuesday.
Those in the courtroom will have to consider how much the owner has spent on the animal, on his food, his training, his neutering, maintenance care and preventive medicine, Turner said. They'll have to try to understand what kind of companionship the animal provided to Baceols and her son.
The case will hinge on how well the jury understands the issues, Turner said, and whether they believe Cody was worth what Baceols claims he was, or simply worth market value.
What Baceols wants, Turner said, is to hold people accountable for her dog's death.
"Cody doesn't have a voice," Turner said. "She is his voice.