Judge OKs $24 Million for Cats, Dogs Sickened by Pet Food

October 16, 2008

A federal judge in New Jersey this week approved a $24 million settlement for owners of dogs and cats that were sickened or died after eating pet food that included a Chinese-made ingredient contaminated with an industrial chemical.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman clears the way for U.S. pet owners with claims to start receiving checks next year. A Canadian judge has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 3 to determine whether the settlement can also apply in that nation.

Under the U.S. deal, pet owners have until Nov. 24 to file claims, which will be paid by the food manufacturers, retailers and others involved in the sale of the products.

The settlement is to compensate owners for many expenses, including the cost of the food, medical and burial expenses for their animals, the value of the animals or the cost of replacement pets, checkups for animals who ate the food but did not get sick, and time the owners took off work to seek treatment for their animals.

Sherrie R. Savett, a lead lawyer for plaintiffs in the case, has said she believes that more than 1,500 animals in the U.S. died after eating the food last year.

Lawyers said that so far, more than 10,000 people have filed claims. Of the claims analyzed so far, the average is nearly $1,500. But the lawyers say that average could drop when an administrator reviews the expenses to make sure they are reasonable.

If money is left over after all pet owners have been paid, it would go to animal-welfare charities. If the fund does not cover all the claims, pet owners would receive something less than 100 percent of their economic losses.

A few dozen pet owners formally objected to the settlement — some of them because they believe it should also compensate them for pain and suffering due to the loss of their pets. Some wrote letters to the judge describing the animals that died after eating contaminated food as best friends, not mere possessions.

But lawyers in the case say the law is not on the side of their deeply felt sentiments, and a hearing on the settlement focused on more routine legal matters.

The case began in March 2007, when dogs and cats began mysteriously getting sick. It turned out that the common thread was pet food produced under nearly 200 labels — much of it by the Menu Foods Income Fund, based in Streetsville, Ontario.

Most of the food turned out to contain Chinese-made wheat gluten laced with melamine, an industrial chemical.

Since then, the nitrogen-rich chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers has been found in a variety of food products in China. Authorities there have pulled many products from stores and have issued guidelines limiting acceptable levels of the chemical in food.

Hundreds of pet owners sued over the contamination. Lawyers for pet food manufacturers, stores that sold it, and pet owners worked out the settlement, which is in addition to about $8 million already paid by the companies to pet owners.

At this week’s hearing, the judge also considered the issue of payment for the lawyers in the case. Fifty-five firms did work for plaintiffs. Savett told the judge that the lead firms alone had put in work worth more than $5 million.


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