Can one Greenpoint woman successfully take on hundreds of years of U.S. Common Law? According to Marzena Golonka, the answer is a resounding “yes,” as she seeks public support to push New York’s State Legislature to pass laws strengthening a pet’s protection from incompetent vets.
Golonka’s quest began in March 2011 after she brought her cat, Lucky, to an NYC animal medical facility for treatment. Despite reassurances from Lucky’s doctor that her cat was doing fine, his condition deteriorated, until one night, his back legs gave out. The vet asked to reexamine Lucky and told Golonka her cat’s condition had mildly progressed. Soon after, Lucky died, the victim of a blood clot, missed during his examination.
Golonka was broken hearted. How could her beloved pet be lost due to what she believed was the negligence of his vet? Complaints to the facility at which Lucky was treated went unanswered and were ultimately rebuffed. She sought legal recourse, but quickly discovered that only a handful of lawyers specialize in veterinary malpractice.
Attorney and longtime animal welfare activist Elizabeth Stein, explained the difficulty of bringing a malpractice suit against a vet. The most important thing, she said, is to find another vet willing to testify as an expert witness, which can be very expensive. Making a suit even more difficult is the fact that in New York State, and actually in all 50 U.S. States, pets are legally considered chattel or property. This means a winning lawsuit would only recoup the market value of the animal, hardly an amount to make a lawsuit economically feasible. “New York seems to be behind the times in recognizing the value of animals,” Stein said. “A dog is not a chair or a purse.”
With this reality in mind, Golonka decided to attack the law. “I’m asking for accountability,” she declared. She launched herself, full-force, behind “Lucky’s Legacy,” her campaign to have the state raise the status of pets from mere property to something more. “Pets are not property,” she said. “They are family, companions and sentient beings.” In 1997, the European Union (EU) recognized animals as “sentient beings,” requiring member states to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.”
Primary to Lucky’s Legacy is the legislation Golonka prepared and shopped to Albany lawmakers during the past session. Under her proposed law, “Veterinarians, vet techs, and anyone assisting in a medical procedure must be held accountable for any harm caused by them to the pets they are entrusted to care for.” As for remuneration in a case of veterinary malpractice, “All complaints and court actions are to take into consideration the pet-human bond.” An additional component of her legislation is a “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” similar to the one offered to human patients.
Thus far, legislative support has been slow in coming. Stein said the “expensive ramifications” of the legislation has led to strong lobbying efforts by veterinarian groups, as well as pet stores and groomers. State Senator Tony Avella has expressed support, in concept, for the Bill of Rights segment of Golonka’s proposal. He said that one major reason that “even very simple, logical legislation about animal rights goes nowhere,” is due to a lack of unity among animal welfare supporters nationwide. “If they worked together, they could probably pass significant pieces of legislation,” he said.
Avella also noted that there are mechanisms in place to handle complaints against veterinary malpractice, but Golonka countered saying these review boards are made up entirely of vets, making their decisions somewhat suspect. She proposed the creation of a more balanced oversight board including members from the general public.
While pet protection laws have been slow in coming, Golonka, Stein and other activists point out that there has been progress. A 2003 bill by the Colorado legislature, the “Companion Animal Bill” included a legislative declaration recognizing that current state laws do not adequately address the recovery of damages for harm caused to companion animals by the negligent acts of animal health care professionals, and recommending that damages resulting from the negligent acts of such professionals be recognized under the law. Certain aspects of companion animal law are changing in New York, too, Stein said. She pointed to recent legislation allowing for the establishment of trusts in the name of pets and clearly delineated rules for granting custody of pets (e.g. following a divorce).
Several in Greenpoint stand behind Golonka’s efforts. Annie Angell of My Two Dogs recognizes that it’s “a weighty issue,” but ultimately feels “that a change in legal status trickles down to everything else and clarifies the definitions used in a malpractice suit. Amy Marciano, founder of Sugar Mutts Rescue called “the level of care, love and expense most people place on their companion animals” is enough of a reason to redefine pets as more than just property.
Golonka knows she is fighting an uphill battle and has launched a website, http://luckyslegacy.com/, describing her mission. She is asking for the public to support her by signing her online petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/help-end-animal-medical-malpractice.
Type your name and email address below, then click "Submit" to be added to our spam-free email list.