Initial approval for $24M pet food deal

May 30, 2008 9:27:16 AM PDT
A judge has given preliminary approval to a settlement over contaminated pet food that could compensate pet owners for all the costs associated with the death or illness of their dogs and cats - right down to carpet damage. U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman on Friday granted initial approval of the deal between pet food makers, sellers and pet owners in the United States and Canada.

Notice to the pet owners is to be made by June 16. They'll have until early December to submit claims.

A final hearing on the $24 million settlement is scheduled for Oct. 14.

One point of dispute that could arise is over the fact the settlement doesn't pay pet owners for the pain and suffering that came from the injuries to their pets.

Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu Foods Income Fund, which makes dog and cat food under about 90 brand names, and other firms that make or sell pet food announced on April 1 that they were settling lawsuits with pet owners.

Some of their products last year were discovered to contain wheat gluten imported from China that was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. The discovery led to what's believed to be the largest pet food recall ever.

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

The settlement allows pet owners to apply for expenses associated with their pets' death and illnesses, including the costs of veterinarians, time missed from work to care for sick animals, replacement pets, burial expenses and even property damaged because animals got sick.

Pet owners can request up to $900 for undocumented claims in case they didn't save all their receipts.

Owners can also be reimbursed if they had their dogs screened for contaminated food - even if they turned out to be healthy.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case are asking for $6 million of the settlement.

If there's any money left over after all the claims are paid, it is to be given to animal-welfare charities.

Dozens of lawyers - about 30 of whom were in court Friday - spent some seven months hammering out details of the settlement, which comes in addition to about $8 million some of the companies have already paid customers.

Lawyers said that one point of contention was something that was not included: compensation for pet owners' emotional distress.

Savett said that would have been a major part of litigation if the case had gone to trial.

"No result from litigation can make up for the loss that these pet owners suffered," she told Hillman.

One pet owner who was relieved to hear that she could be paid in the settlement is Nancy Gett, who breeds Pomeranians and other breeds of dogs in Oxford, N.C.

She said that tried a different kind of Iams pet foods for a litter of puppies born in the spring of 2007 because she had a coupon for it. It turned out the food was contaminated.

All four puppies in the litter died within weeks of weaning - including one that she had sold to a woman in New Jersey.

She had to replace that dog - they usually go for $400 to $500, she said - and pay medical expenses of a few hundreds for the others, she said.

She was not sure of her total expenses.

But for months, she had been fretting over whether she could get any compensation. She said a Menu Foods representative previously told her she was not eligible because she did not save the packages that the contaminated food came in.

"I said, who in the world keeps an empty foil or an empty package after they've used it?"

A Web site to give information to pet owners is under construction.