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Pet Plaintiffs

By Megan Kinneyn | Aug. 2, 2007

News

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2007

Pet Plaintiffs

A recent pet-food scandal may help to reshape pet-death litigation awards. By Susan E. Davis

By Susan E. Davis
      Edited by Jeanette Borzo
     
      In mid-February, Jim Aubrey's dog Spumoni started vomiting and urinating all over the house. Aubrey and his wife brought the Jack Russell terrier to a local Santa Monica veterinarian, who diagnosed their pet with kidney failure. The Aubreys continued trying to get Spumoni to eat?even force-feeding her through a tube?until they discovered that Menu Foods, a Canadian pet-food manufacturer, had recalled the very food they were feeding her.
      The food was tainted with melamine, an additive used in plastics, and the dog died several days later. Since that time, Food and Drug Administration staffers say, they've had more than 10,000 calls from dog and cat owners claiming that their pets had died or gotten sick from contaminated pet food. And now the Aubreys are among dozens of plaintiffs engaged in litigation that could boost both the legal status of pets and the monetary awards in wrongful-death cases concerning animals. As attorneys seek damages for the pet owners' pain and suffering, the Menu Foods scandal has become a galvanizing force for pet owners' rights.
      Considering that in most states?including California?pets are viewed as property and their worth is set at only market value or replacement cost, this idea is somewhat radical. In court a purebred dog might fetch $1,000, but that oh-so-grateful mutt from the pound? Perhaps no more than $25.
      "You can't recover enough in damages [even] to cover the legal costs if you file suit," says Joyce Tischler, founding director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Cotati.
      Still, some California courts have let plaintiffs recover mental-anguish damages in property-loss cases, and a few pet owners have won more than replacement value. In one 2004 case in Orange County, for instance, a jury awarded a dog owner $30,000 based on the animal's "special value."
      "The tide is definitely turning," says William Audet, a San Francisco attorney who represents individual plaintiffs and has filed two class actions against Menu Foods. "Whether it's through statutory changes or common law, the emotional value of pets is being recognized."
      But that recognition itself may spur unintended consequences. "The long-term risk here is that both veterinary costs and pet-food costs could rise," says Beverly Hills sole practitioner Kenneth Phillips, a specialist in pet owners' rights. "If that leads to more animals who are neglected or dumped, it's not a positive change."
     
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Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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