Judge OKs $24M for cats, dogs sickened by pet food

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - October 14, 2008 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 deal, pet owners have until Nov. 24 to file claims.

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, replacing carpets ruined by sick pets, 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 their animals, who died after eating contaminated food, as best friends who should not be regarded as 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 Tuesday 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 Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu Foods Income Fund.

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 have been found in a variety of food products in China. Authorities there have issued guidelines limiting acceptable levels of the chemical in food.

Hundreds of pet owners sued over the contamination. Just over a year after the pets began getting sick, lawyers for pet food manufacturers, stores that sold it, and pet owners had worked out the settlement, which would be in addition to about $8 million already paid by the companies to pet owners.

At Tuesday'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.

Savett, who has spent more than two decades working on class-action lawsuits, said pet owners would do well under the settlement - even without damages for their suffering.

If the case had been allowed to go to trial, she said, the defendants might have tried to make each plaintiff prove that a pet had eaten the contaminated food and that it was not some other cause that killed or sickened the animal.

"There is a risk that people would not have gotten anything at all," she said.

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