Pet Food Firm Sued over Animal Deaths

Pet owners are suing a Canadian company which recalled pet food that may have caused the deaths of at least 16 animals. Some owners say they should be compensated for emotional distress as well as veterinary bills.

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Pet owners in a number of states have sued a Canadian manufacturer of pet food that it has now recalled, pet food that is blamed in the death of at least 16 animals. One woman in Maine is trying to recover the cost of her veterinarian bills, and she wants money for the emotional distress she says she suffered from the loss of her two Persian hybrid cats.

Legal experts say, though, that even if pet owners can prove their animals died from tainted food, they're unlikely to get lots of money. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Many American pet-owners view their dog or cat as a member of the family. Traditionally though, American courts have seen them very differently.

Mr. CHRIS D'ANGELO (Philadelphia Diversity Law Group): Most states view pets and other animals as property.

LANGFITT: That's Chris D'Angelo. He chairs a product liability group at a prominent Philadelphia law firm. D'Angelo likes pets, but he says in the eyes of the court, seeking compensation for dead pets is like seeking cash for a damaged car. The amount of money you get comes down to market value.

Mr. D'ANGELO: If someone causes damage to your car and the car is totaled, your recovery would be the value of the car at the time of the accident. Similar circumstances pertain when you're dealing with animals: If you cause harm to a herd of cattle, it's the value of the loss of the cattle.

LANGFITT: So what's the market value of a pet? Carl Tobias says, in many cases, probably not much. Tobias teaches product liability at the University of Richmond School of Law. He also owns a four-year-old terrier mix named Maggie.

Professor CARL TOBIAS (Law, University of Richmond): With purebred animals you might be able to say, well, I spent $500, I spent a thousand dollars or even more. But many people, myself included, receive the animal from a vet who found the animal and fixed the animal up when the animal was hurt. And so I didn't pay anything for the dog.

LANGFITT: Tobias says, though, that if owners can show their animals were poisoned, they can reasonably argue that they should be reimbursed for vet bills, which can run to the thousands of dollars.

Mr. TOBIAS: But beyond that, what's so difficult is quantifying the emotional harm to the owner.

LANGFITT: Some plaintiff's attorneys are certain to argue otherwise. Jay Edelson is a lawyer in Chicago who's filed a case on behalf of pet owners against the manufacturer of Menu Foods. He says the law doesn't reflect the close relationship people have with their pets today.

Mr. JAY EDELSON (Attorney): When you tell someone that their cat, who they've had for 10 years and it's their kid's best friend, and it died really a horrible death and that the law values that as being less than their kitchen chair or their sofa, that's both offensive and just inaccurate.

LANGFITT: Indeed, people care for their pets in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Some devoted owners will spend more than $10,000 to do a kidney transplant on a cat. Today, there are more than 1,500 doggie daycare centers for people who don't want to leave their animals at home when they go to work.

But should courts compensate owners for emotional loss when those animals die? Jay Edelson says only a handful of states have accepted such arguments, and the circumstances have to be pretty egregious.

Mr. EDELSON: Usually there has to be some sort of extreme and outrageous conduct.

LANGFITT: As lawyers try to expand the way courts value pets, the nation's mammoth pet service industry will be watching closely. Everyone from pet food makers to veterinarians will want to know how such a change might affect them.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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