Tideland News Writer
Former Swansboro resident Shawna Zimmerman last week won a $5,000 Craven County Small Claims Court judgment against a local veterinarian she holds responsible for the death last year of her 7-year-old Bichon Frise dog, Baylee.
However, the vet, Robert Ridgeway, who at the time of the incident was on duty at the Emergency Pet Hospital of Havelock, has appealed the judgment, rendered July 5 in New Bern, to Craven County District Court. The appeal was filed July 6.
Ridgeway, whose address is listed in court documents as South Glenburnie Road in New Bern, did not return calls left for comment. But Zimmerman, who now lives in Crestview, Fla., said Friday she felt “some relief” from the judgment.
“I still miss Baylee every day and nothing is going to bring him back, but this (judgment) at least indicates that he (Ridgeway) made a horrible decision that night, and maybe this will help keep someone else and their pet from having to go through what we went through,” she said.
The story began on Jan. 13, 2010, when Baylee began having respiratory problems early in the night. Zimmerman at the time worked at Carteret General Hospital, and her contract with the Morehead City facility prohibited her from traveling more than 45 minutes from there while she was on call. Her husband faced a similar travel restriction in his job at Camp Lejeune.
At that time, Zimmerman told Tideland that after she noticed her dog’s distress, she first called Baylee’s primary care vet, Banfield, a clinic affiliated with PetSmart. The after-hours message from the Banfield clinic in Morehead City directed Zimmerman to call Coastal Veterinarian Emergency, a clinic in Jacksonville.
However, a malfunction with that clinic’s phone line prevented Zimmerman from reaching help for Baylee, so she dialed 411 for information on other local vet clinics and was connected to the Havelock clinic. However, Zimmerman said, when that clinic learned Baylee was a Banfield patient, she was told Baylee could not receive treatment there. After pleading for the veterinarian on duty that night, Dr. Robert Ridgeway, to make an exception, and even arriving at the clinic with Baylee in her arms, Ridgeway maintained, through an employee, that he could not.
Baylee died a few hours later, and Zimmerman believes he would have lived had he been treated. She was furious that an administrative policy cost the life of her dog.
“It’s a terrible policy to have,” Zimmerman said to the newspaper last year. “What happened shouldn’t have happened and should be illegal.”
Zimmerman at the time felt so strongly that the “discrimination” against Baylee was unethical that she sought legal representation.
She took her case to attorney Callie Gerber of the Gerber Animal Law Center in Raleigh. In the end, because of the unpredictability of winning a judgment and the high cost of going to court with an attorney, Gerber recommended Zimmerman proceed, if she chose to do so, in small claims court, without a lawyer.
However, Gerber said Friday she was “elated” by the decision rendered in small claims court.
“I think it’s historic,” she said. “I feel that it says nobody can do this kind of thing – refuse to treat a dog in an emergency situation – and feel he can get away with it. No animal deserves to be tortured the way Baylee was. It was a bad policy and a very bad decision.”
In her small claims court complaint, Zimmerman stated that Ridgeway, “failed to follow veterinary ethics codes set forth by the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board.”
In a May 5, 2011, letter to Ridgeway, George C. Hearn, attorney for that board, wrote that it had been “reasonable for Ms. Zimmerman to seek emergency care from EPH and that an exception be made to the EPH policy of declining to evaluate and treat animals whose primary veterinarian is not a member of EPH.”
He noted that Ridgeway had been asleep in the clinic’s doctor’s lounge that night, but stated that, “it appears EPH corporate management and you were remiss in delegating too much screening authority” to Jennifer Kidney, the EPH office manager and the person who talked to Zimmerman on the phone and at the door of EPH.
The “letter of caution” signed by Hearn states that the board’s committee on investigations “recognizes the difficult and ethically problematic position in which you (Ridgeway) were placed by the EPH bylaws and the facility policy” and adds that the board “has determined in several cases over the years that owners of animals do not have the absolute right to demand that a veterinarian examine and treat their pets. Each case turns on specific facts.
“Nevertheless, on the facts of this case, the committee has concluded that general veterinary medical ethics called for a response from you other than a denial of service based upon the EPH bylaws. While the committee recognizes your lack of knowledge (Ridgeway never spoke to Zimmerman, only his employee), you should have been aware of all of the relevant facts regarding Ms. Zimmerman’s request for assistance.”
Hearn cited sections of the American Veterinary Medical Association ethics code: “In emergencies, veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to provide essential services for animals when necessary to save life or relieve suffering, subsequent to client agreement” and, “Regardless of practice ownership, the interests of the patient, client and public require that all decisions that affect diagnosis, care and treatment of patients are made by veterinarians.”
Hearn cited an NCVMB rule that states, “If no probable cause is found, but it is determined by the committee that the conduct of the accused party is not in accord with accepted professional practice or may be the subject of discipline if continued or repeated, the committee may issue a letter of caution to the accused party, stating that the conduct, while not the basis for a disciplinary hearing, is not professionally acceptable …”
The committee, Hearn wrote, issued the letter of caution for the following reasons:
• “You failed to appropriately manage the EPH office by failing to adequately supervise Jennifer Kidney… Your failure to do so resulted in your being unaware of extenuating circumstances surrounding Ms. Zimmerman’s attempted presentation of Baylee for evaluation and care.”
• “You should have assessed the dog’s condition to determine the extent of his problem, whether he could be stabilized and the best means to provide stabilization or referral of him, if available, for necessary care. The committee cannot know, and it would be unwise to speculate, whether Baylee would have survived even if treated.”
The letter also notes that the committee has since interviewed other EPH officers, including Walter Westbrook of Newport, David Hall of Morehead City and Christopher Worrell of Morehead City, all of whom “affirmed to this board that it is the current policy of EPH that an animal presented in an apparent emergency condition will be assessed and stabilized or treated by EPH … even though the animal’s owner or agent maybe not be a regular client or a member of EPH.
“The board certainly hopes that this clarified policy of EPH will prevent situations similar to that experienced by Ms. Zimmerman on 1/13/10 from occurring in the future.”
Although Ridgeway did not respond to messages left for him by Tideland News, he told the newspaper last year that, from his point of view, the problem was not with the pet hospital’s policy, but with the reluctance of other vets to become shareholders in EPH.
“The Emergency Pet Service has been there since 1995,” Ridgeway said. “Very shortly after its formation, we decided to become a private clinic.”
Ridgeway emphasized then that, since its inception, the clinic had invited every veterinarian in surrounding counties to join the practice.
“We made every effort to put Mrs. Zimmerman in touch with a public facility,” Ridgeway said last year.
Unfortunately, Zimmerman was not able to utilize those facilities – the phone line was malfunctioning at the Jacksonville facility, and the Greenville facility was too far for Zimmerman’s work obligations, he said.
“I am sorry for that,” Ridgeway said at the time. “We are not a public facility. We’re limited by certain rules, and I didn’t set up the rules.”
Zimmerman said the judge in the case was very brief, seemed very familiar with the case and seemed to base the decision in large part on review of the letter from the AMVA board.
She and Gerber said they are glad EPH has clarified its policy, but Zimmerman said she is disappointed Ridgeway has not apologized or otherwise accepted responsibility for what she feels was his role in her beloved pet’s death.
“He hasn’t shown any sense of remorse or grief,” she said. “I know they have now changed their policy, but even before that … well, a vet takes an oath, like a doctor.”