A jury in California Superior Court for the county of Los Angeles has awarded Priscilla and Carlo Vaccarezza more than $1.5 million in damages and interest stemming from a medical negligence lawsuit they filed against veterinarian Dr. Vincent Baker and his Equine Medical Center for Baker’s treatment of the Vaccarezzas’ filly, Little Alexis, prior to the 2014 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
Jurors listened to six days of depositions and testimony from Carlo Vaccarezza, Baker and an array of expert witnesses and others before awarding the Vaccarezzas $1,060,000 in damages plus just over $500,000 in interest dating back to Nov. 3, 2014. That’s the date Little Alexis – a stakes-winning, G1-placed daughter of Mr. Greeley – was to have been offered at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale, where Carlo Vaccarezza had been told by Kentucky horseman John Sikura she would bring at least $1.5 million. According to Vaccarezza, an offer was made to him on behalf of Sikura for that amount following the filly’s third-place finish, beaten a length and a nose, in the G1 Test Stakes at Saratoga.
Little Alexis never made it to the 2014 sale, however, as she was unable to travel to Kentucky from California on Nov. 2, 2014, after coming out of a ninth-place finish in the previous day’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) with a fever.
One year later, after four additional starts in non-graded stakes company, Little Alexis sold for $440,000 at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale. The difference between the original $1.5 million appraisal of 2014 (subsequently confirmed by bloodstock agent/appraiser Thomas Clark) and the 2015 hammer price is the amount of damages ($1,060,000). The jury ruled that interest should begin accruing on the date of the 2014 Fasig-Tipton sale.
The original complaint alleging medical and general negligence was filed in late 2015 and amended on March 8, 2016. The plaintiffs’ case was strengthened months later later when Carlo Vaccarezza learned for the first time of abnormal blood test results for Little Alexis in a sample taken the morning before the Breeders’ Cup. Vaccarezza said Baker never told him the results of the blood tests, an alleged failure that would become the linchpin in the case against Baker, accusing him of providing veterinary services that fell short of the “standard of care” for the veterinary medical profession.
All parties agree that Baker was contacted by Carlo Vaccarezza – who had taken out his trainer’s license in 2013 – to provide veterinary services while Little Alexis was at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup. Baker or an associate from Equine Medical Center treated Little Alexis with routine therapeutics and vitamin jugs prior to and after timed workouts in the weeks leading up to the race.
Two days before the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, on Oct. 30, 2014, Baker gave permitted pre-race medication treatment with the anti-inflammatory Ketofen, electrolytes and a vitamin jug, all delivered into Little Alexis’ left jugular vein through a catheter.
On the morning of Oct. 31, Wilson Seaman, the groom taking care of Little Alexis, noticed that the filly was off her feed, had an elevated temperature and a noticeable bump on the left side of her neck where the catheter had been placed. Seaman called Carlo Vaccarezza early on the morning of Oct. 31, telling him, “We’ve got a problem.” Vaccarezza contacted Baker.
Baker testified that he told Vaccarezza he would stop by the barn to assess the condition of Little Alexis and have some bloodwork done. Vaccarezza testified that Baker did not say anything about taking blood samples for testing.
Upon seeing the filly’s condition, including an elevated 103.2 temperature, Baker dispensed the phenylbutazone and another vitamin jug, this time through a catheter into the jugular vein on the right side of the neck. The Bute, an anti-inflammatory that at the time was legal in California up until 24 hours before a race, would help reduce the fever, Baker said. At the same time, Baker drew blood that he would send for testing to the equine hospital in the stable area at Santa Anita.
Baker also suggested rotating hot and cold compresses to reduce the bump on the left side of the neck that the veterinarian described in his testimony as “small” and “mushy.” He reminded the filly’s groom to keep her head elevated. Baker said the swollen area was not sensitive to the touch, though the filly’s groom and owner, along with Vaccarezza’s son, Nicholas, all said Little Alexis would “flinch” whenever pressure was applied to the swollen area.
Vaccarezza testified that he expressed concern to Baker about whether or not Little Alexis should run, knowing that a fever would prevent her from getting a health certificate to fly to Kentucky for the sale. Baker testified that he didn’t recall such a conversation.
Later that day, Baker picked up the test results he had ordered for Little Alexis. The results of the complete blood count (CBC) showed an elevated white blood cell count of 12.1 k/ul (normal is 4-10). The serum amyloid A (SAA) test is a marker of inflammation and infection. The normal range in horses is 0-15; Little Alexis had an SAA level of 2,534. (Read more about SAA tests here.)
Baker testified that he tried to call Vaccarezza with the test results late afternoon or early evening of Oct. 31 but that Vaccarezza did not answer. He said he did not leave a message or send a text message to Vaccarezza’s cell phone and did not share the results with anyone else connected to Little Alexis.
By race-day morning on Nov. 1, Little Alexis’ temperature had returned to normal and so had her appetite. The bump on the neck was reduced – all thanks to the combination of the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone and the hot and cold compresses that the filly’s groom continued to put on the inflamed area through the previous day and night.
Vaccarezza said he was still concerned about her condition and whether to scratch from the Filly & Mare Sprint. Baker checked in on the filly and told Vaccarezza, “You’ll be OK to run.” Little Alexis lacked early speed, dropped back to last, then finished ninth of 10 runners at 16-1 odds in the seven-furlong contest, beaten 9 ¼ lengths in a race won by Judy the Beauty.
Shortly afterwards, groom Seaman and Nicholas Vaccarezza both noticed that Little Alexis seemed dull, and that the bump on the left side of her neck, according to Carlo Vaccarezza’s testimony, was “bigger than ever,” and she now had a fever of 104.7. A photograph of the swollen area, taken about 3 ½ hours after the race, was entered into evidence.
Baker had stopped by the barn shortly after the race and left three anti-inflammatories: Bute and Banamine paste and Aspirin tablets.
Baker did not see Little Alexis again before she would eventually fly to Florida after being forced to miss the Fasig-Tipton Sale. On Nov. 2, the morning after the Breeders’ Cup, Dr. Ryan Carpenter, an associate of Baker’s at the Equine Medical Center, testified that he stopped at the barn briefly to check on Little Alexis. Without going into her stall, Carpenter said he observed “a normal horse standing in her stall” who was “not depressed or distressed.”
Vaccarezza, to the contrary, said that Little Alexis was “lethargic and not eating much” on the morning after the race.
Little Alexis was given an examination upon her return to Florida on Nov. 5 by Dr. Stephen Selway, a portion of whose deposition was shown to the jury. Selway stated that he found the filly’s jugular vein on the left side of her neck was “occluded, ” “like a hard rope,” and that blood was not flowing through the vein properly. The filly “flinched” to the touch in the area where the cellulitis, or inflammation had occurred, he said. “Something was injected that didn’t get into the vein,” Selway said in the deposition.
Dr. Michael Chovanes, another equine practitioner who testified on behalf of Vaccarezza, said the 2,534 reading on the SAA test was the highest he had ever heard of and that the horse should have been scratched on that information alone. From his perspective, Chovanes said, it was a “significant risk” to run Little Alexis after such abnormal test results. If Little Alexis’ jugular vein was blocked due to thrombosis, Chovanes told jurors, blood on the left side of the horse was not getting back to the heart, meaning the heart would not be pumping properly, which could lead to further problems.
While Baker said blood tests like CBC and SAA are just a “piece of the puzzle” when diagnosing potential problems in a horse, that’s what the jury focused on during their two hours of deliberation.
The presiding juror, or foreperson, a 34-year-old engineer, told the Paulick Report the jury was swayed by the plaintiff’s argument that Baker failed to live up to his profession’s standard of care by not sharing the results of the blood tests with Carlos Vaccarezza.
“Negligent care, not reporting medical facts to an owner or not doing all you can to report all the medical information to the owner,” the presiding juror identified as the reason the jury found Baker at fault.
The vote was 11-to-1 on the question of whether Baker failed “to use the level of skill, knowledge and care that other reasonably careful veterinarians would use in same or similar circumstances.”
The presiding juror was the lone vote not finding fault with Baker.
“I do a lot of scientific reasonings and have to give a lot of scientific opinions,” the presiding juror said. “I have a technical background and often have to make decisions based on my expertise, oftentimes under immense amount of pressure and short amount of time. So I empathize with that scenario. I also empathize with having to make those decisions on behalf of people who may or may not always understand the mechanics, the physics, the whatever behind those decisions. I personally understood where that came from but that’s not ultimately how the jury voted.”
The jury voted 9-3 that the negligence was a “substantial factor in causing damage” to the Vaccarezzas. It was a 10-2 vote that damages should be $1,060,000 and unanimous that the plaintiffs are entitled to prejudgment interest of the amount of damages awarded and that the date from which the interest accrues is Nov. 3, 2014.
Priscilla and Carlos Vaccarezza were represented by James R. Morgan of Walnut Creek, Calif. Baker’s attorney was Lisa Brown of Wallace Brown & Schwartz of Pasadena, Calif. The presiding judge was Richard J. Burdge.
Brown said the judgment will be appealed.
“This verdict sends a message loud and clear that vets have to be held accountable for what they do,” Carlos Vaccarezza said. “Here you have a vet that took an SAA and a blood test on my horse without even telling me. It’s like in racing: if a trainer gets a 30-day suspension for a medication violation, the vet should get a 30-day suspension. There has to be some kind of accountability.”
The judgment is just the latest blow against Baker, who unrelated to this civil lawsuit is facing disciplinary charges from the California Veterinary Medical Board for negligence, unprofessional conduct and other alleged violations of the Practice Act. Baker is also the veterinarian who prescribed an ointment containing betamethasone that led to the disqualification of Medina Spirit from victory in the G1 Kentucky Derby and a 90-suspension for his trainer, Bob Baffert.