Veterinarians may have several legal defenses to claims of malpractice. One of the most important procedural defenses is that of the statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a state law that puts a limit on the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit, usually from the time the injury occurred or when he or she discovered the injury. If the statute of limitations runs out before the lawsuit is filed, then no legal action may be taken. Any attempt to do so will result in the judge dismissing the suit without hearing the merits of the claim. In order to "toll" the statute of limitations (i.e. make the limitations period stop running), the plaintiff must actually file suit. Demand letters sent to the vet or the verbal notification of a future claim do not act to toll the statute of limitations.
With veterinary malpractice cases for injury to or death of a horse, the applicable statute of limitations may be based on claims for injury to personal property in that state, as domestic animals are considered personal property of the owner. Those cases usually have a statute of limitations of four (4) years.
For states that include veterinarians under the list of professions covered by malpractice statutes, they may be based upon statutes that set time limits for malpractice. These statues of limitations are usually shorter, typically two (2) years.
For instance, Georgia law provides a two (2) year statute of limitations for medical malpractice actions. However, veterinarians are not included in the definition of malpractice actions, because those involve injuries to people only. Georgia has a four (4) year statute of limitations for injuries to personal property, which would arguably apply to a veterinary malpractice claim brought in Georgia.
Importantly, the manner in which a plaintiff pleads his or her claim (i.e., whether he or she claims common negligence or malpractice) may dictate the statute of limitations. If a negligence claim is not barred by limitations and a malpractice action is barred, a court would allow the negligence action to go forward and dismiss the malpractice action.
For more information on vet malpractice actions and the applicable statute of limitations, see Veterinarian Malpractice by Davis S. Favre.