A judge in the LA County Superior Court of California has reversed a February jury verdict that awarded Carlo and Priscilla Vaccarezza more than $1.5 million in veterinary malpractice and negligence damages against the Equine Medical Center and veterinarian Vince Baker, according to a ruling dated Thursday.
The case surrounds the treatment that Baker gave to the Vaccarezza owned and trained Little Alexis, before she finished ninth in the 2014 GI Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita.
“I think it's a great result. Dr. Baker is a fabulous veterinarian,” said attorney Lisa J. Brown, who represents Baker. “This case should never have been filed and it should never have gotten this far. It's a shame that this was the approach that the Vaccarezzas took.”
According to James Morgan, who represents the Vaccarezzas, the plaintiffs will appeal the ruling.
“We have trust in the jury's objective consideration of all the evidence that initially resulted in a verdict in favor of the Vaccarezzas. We intend to request the assistance of the court of appeal to confirm the merits of the jury's carefully considered findings,” Morgan wrote, in a text.
Two days before the Breeders' Cup race, Baker administered a treatment of permitted pre-race medications–including the anti-inflammatory Ketofen, electrolytes and a vitamin jug–intravenously into Little Alexis's left jugular, as per coverage of the jury verdict.
One day later, a lump had appeared on Little Alexis's neck at the site where the catheter had been inserted. She had also spiked a temperature.
Baker treated the horse for her elevated temperature and drew blood for testing. By the morning of the race, Little Alexis's temperature had dropped and Baker gave her the all-clear to race.
After the race, however, Little Alexis's condition deteriorated again, preventing her from flying from California to the Fasig-Tipton November Sale in Kentucky as planned. She had been appraised for $1.5 million as a stakes-winning racing prospect.
Kept in training, Little Alexis never again competed in graded stakes, and was ultimately sold for $440,000.
The Vaccarezzas' original complaint was filed in 2015 and alleged medical and general negligence. Vaccarezza also claimed that months after he filed the original complaint, he learned that Little Alexis's blood test results taken the morning before the race showed abnormalities.
Vaccarezza claimed that Baker failed to tell him of the abnormal blood test results, and that his “standard of care” for Little Alexis fell short of that for the veterinary medical profession.
In February, a 12-person jury sided with the plaintiffs, awarding them $1.06 million plus interest in damages, for a total of more than $1.5 million.
The defendants in the case subsequently filed two post-trial motions, one for a new trial and a motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict.
In his Thursday ruling, judge Richard Burdge reversed the jury verdict, writing that the “Plaintiffs did not present substantial evidence that an average veterinarian of ordinary skill would have treated the facts of this case differently and did not establish a relevant, recognized standard of care in California at the relevant time. Therefore, the finding of veterinary negligence is not supported by substantial evidence and the JNOV motion is granted.”
Judge Burdge also denied the motion for a new trial. According to Morgan, the judge also denied a motion for diminished damages.
Central to judge Burdge's ruling was that he found a key expert witness for the Vaccarezzas had testified to personal veterinary standards rather than to the standard of care among veterinarians in California in general.
In the February trial, veterinarian Michael Chovanes said, for example, that an important reading in the blood test—pertaining to the SAA value, which measures a protein synthesized by the liver that increases dramatically with inflammation—was significantly elevated.
This was one of the reasons why Little Alexis should have been scratched from the Breeders' Cup, Chovanes testified at the February trial, calling the decision to run her a “significant risk.”
In his Thursday ruling, however, judge Burdge writes that Chovanes “was never asked, and he did not testify, that essentially every 'veterinarian of ordinary skill and knowledge from the relevant community' would give that same answer or balance the risks and interests involved in exactly the same way.”
Judge Burdge adds in the written ruling: “If another qualified practitioner in the exercise of professional judgment might have answered that question differently, Dr. Chovanes' answer does not establish a standard to which any other practitioner must always adhere.”
Judge Burdge's ruling was based on relatively limited information, while an appellate court would have access to the full trial transcript, said Morgan, in a telephone call.
“I can't fault the trial court for not having a complete copy of the transcript. He called it the way he saw it. The jurors called it the way they saw it. And I trust the court of appeal process,” said Morgan, who added that the Vaccarezzas have not yet filed an appeal, and that such a trial “won't be soon.”
According to Brown, the original jury verdict was “inconsistent” with the law, as the expert testimony, based on “personal preference,” was insufficient to establish liability.
“They ignored the evidence that the horse returned to racing and there was no evidence that any downfall in [Little Alexis's] ability to run had anything to do with what doctor Baker did,” said Brown.