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Judge Approves $24M in Pet Melamine-Poisoning Case

Oct 15, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Yesterday we reported that pet owners are asking that criminal charges be brought against the pet food companies that poisoned their pets last year.  A federal judge was listening to oral arguments on a proposal to bring the amount pet food makers and distributors would pay to settle hundreds of lawsuits to $32 million.  The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman approved a $24 million settlement for those cat and dog owners whose pets fell ill or died after eating pet food contaminated with melamine, which represents an addition to the original $8 million, bringing the total settlement amount to $32 million.  The owners have until November 24 to file the claims; checks could arrive next year.  A Canadian judge has scheduled a hearing for November 3 to determine if the settlement can also apply there.

In March 2007, the Menu Foods Income Fund recalled millions of containers of pet food that were believed to be sickening and killing pets rapidly and by the thousands.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) learned that the food contained melamine, which was traced to contaminated wheat gluten imported from China.  Menu's products are sold under some 90 different brand names and 200 different labels.

Melamine is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics, fire retardants, and fertilizers and has become popular in recent years for its ability to cheat nutrition tests.  Because melamine possesses high nitrogen contents, it is used to falsify protein levels in foods, being added when food is diluted with other, less expensive food products or water.  The addition of melamine creates the impression of high protein levels in the diluted products.  Melamine can cause kidney problems—including kidney stones and kidney failure—when ingested and can lead to death.

The settlement is meant to compensate owners for many expenses that, according to the AP report, include the cost of the food and medical and burial expenses, “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.”  A lead attorney for the plaintiffs said she believes over 1,500 animals died in the U.S. after eating the tainted food.  Lawyers also report that over 10,000 people have filed claims, with the average claim totaling nearly $1,500.  Lawyers say that figure could drop after expenses are reviewed.  Any money remaining after payouts are complete would go to animal-welfare charities; however, “if the fund does not cover all the claims, pet owners would receive something less than 100 percent of their economic losses,” said the AP.

The AP noted that the agreement does not include financial restitution for the humans' pain and suffering over the illness and injuries to and deaths of their pets and a few dozen pet owners formally objected to the settlement.  Some pet owners wrote letters to Judge Hillman describing their animals as best friends and not possessions; however, lawyers involved say that the law “is not on the side of their deeply felt sentiments.”

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