Consumers Sue over Tainted Pet Food from China

Consumers are suing companies that made, distributed and sold tainted pet food from China. But few are suing the Chinese companies believed to have caused the contamination. It's complicated to sue a foreign company with no presence on U.S. soil.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Here is something odd about the tainted pet food scandal. You may recall that millions of cans and bags of dog and cat food were recalled after it was learned they were tainted. There's no way to know how many pets died before the recall, but estimates run into the thousands, and many lawsuits are being filed to recover damages. Consumers are suing the companies that made and distributed the food and the stores that sold it. But here's the odd part - almost nobody is suing the Chinese companies believed to have actually caused the contamination.

NPR's Adam Davidson reports.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Dan Rottinghaus is a lawyer who represents pet owners who lost cats and dogs. He decided to sue the Canadian company that made the pet food with tainted ingredients, but he's not going after the Chinese company that actually did the tainting that actually poisoned those pets. Why sue one foreign company and give a second foreign company a pass? Because the Canadian company, Menu Foods, has two factories on U.S. soil.

Mr. DAN ROTTINGHAUS (Attorney): While they're a Canadian company, they're actually doing business, physically doing business, handling product and all, right in the United States.

DAVIDSON: When a foreign company has an actual physical operation - a factory, a sales office, a store - in the U.S., it's treated exactly the same as any U.S.-owned company, which for lawyers means it's pretty easy to sue them. Things get a lot more complicated when a foreign company has no presence - no office, no representative, nothing on U.S. soil.

Mr. ROTTINGHAUS: You can't go into the U.S. court and say, well, I want to bring a claim against that Chinese company. You would still have to show how you can get jurisdiction over that company.

DAVIDSON: You have to convince a judge that the foreign company, without ever leaving foreign soil, somehow did something that put them under the jurisdiction of a U.S. court. It's not impossible, but it's not all that easy. There are lawyers all over the country filing lawsuits on that pet food case - lots of lawsuits.

Mr. ROTTINGHAUS: There's over a hundred, actually, that have been filed. In fact, I mean, gosh, in Arkansas alone there's probably been 15 or so.

DAVIDSON: Bill Horton, a lawyer in Arkansas, says of all the lawsuits only a small handful named the Chinese manufacturer. The vast majority give the actual alleged perpetrator of this crime a complete pass, and Horton says he knows why.

Mr. BILL HORTON (Attorney): It's too difficult. Why go after a Chinese corporation and try to track them down and then try to collect, and the political channels, etc., when you can just sue Wal-Mart and be done with it.

DAVIDSON: In the U.S., you can sue pretty much anybody who touched a defective product at any point in the supply chain. What does that mean for this case? You can sue Menu Foods, the Canadian pet food manufacturer. You could sue Purina or any of the brands that put their name on that food. You can sue Wal-Mart or Safeway or any other store that sold the tainted food. So what lawyers do, typically, is figure out who has the most money, who's the easiest to go after, and who's the most likely to settle quickly.

In this case, that's Wal-Mart, an American company with lots of money and a big interest in settling. Horton is suing Wal-Mart, and as sort of a Hail Mary pass he's one of the few lawyers going after the Chinese company. He says it's partly a strategic move. His case against Wal-Mart could be strengthened by information gathered from the Chinese manufacturer. Horton says he likes his chances.

Mr. HORTON: Well, Wal-Mart is obviously a sure thing.

DAVIDSON: And what's the chance of you collecting against the Chinese company?

Mr. HORTON: 60/40, and I would say 60 is we don't see a dime.

DAVIDSON: That's because even if Horton gets a court to grant jurisdiction and even if he wins the case, there's a whole new problem: he has to collect. And that means a Chinese court has to enforce the U.S. ruling, and that is extremely unlikely. Speaking to several experts, NPR couldn't find anyone who knew of a U.S. consumer ever actually getting any money from a Chinese company that had no presence in the U.S.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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