CLEARWATER — A jury on Friday found in favor of a woman who sued a pet hospital after her dog died in its care.
In 2007, Cody, Liza Baceols' 4-year-old golden retriever, 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 new ownership — Cody chewed off his tail, went into cardiac arrest and died.
Although this week's trial was a success for Baceols, 40, there are additional legal battles to come because she is asking for more than what is typically owed to an owner who lost a pet due to negligence.
"He was family to us, and that's what (the court) needs to understand," said Baceols, who works for Raymond James Financial.
The case originally went to court in 2011, but the jury deadlocked after 11 hours of deliberation because they had to decide how much was owed to Baceols. In this week's retrial, the jury found that Noah's Place was grossly negligent, but another jury will decide how much Baceols should recover in a later trial.
Bryce Spano, the attorney representing Noah's Place and three veterinarians — Jennifer Buird, David Hoch and John Hodges — declined to comment.
Under Florida law, owners can recover only the market-value costs of replacing the lost pet. But Baceols believes she should get reparations for the pain and suffering that she and her son, now 16-year-old Kyle, endured after losing Cody.
To get more than the typical amount, Baceols will have to prove that the veterinarians' behavior was abnormally egregious, said Peter Fitzgerald, a Stetson University College of Law professor and expert in animal law.
Kenneth Newman, a veterinarian in Seminole and expert witness for Baceols, hopes that an outcome in her favor will encourage the courts to make similar decisions in the future.
Since his dog, Gracie, was killed by a car several years ago, Newman has been pushing Gracie's Law, which would consider pets' intrinsic value in damage assessment.
"One of the major constraints on advancing animal issues is that we continue to view animals as property, the same as a chair and a pencil," he said. "We can move 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 said she will always love Cody, but she is ready to close this chapter in her life.
"I'm so emotional," Baceols said. "I've never really been able to mourn, and now I can."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was changed to reflect the following correction.
A judge dismissed all legal claims against veterinarians Jennifer Buird, David Hoch and John Hodges prior to the jury reaching a verdict. A jury in Pinellas County decided Friday that only Noah's Place Animal Medical Center was liable in the 2007 death of a dog that was awaiting surgery at the facility.
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A story published Saturday incorrectly reported the trial's outcome.