The owners of thousands of cats and dogs killed or sickened by tainted pet food could share in a proposed $32 million settlement that would cover out-of-pocket costs - and provide a bit extra for undocumented expenses.
The preliminary settlement, filed last night in U.S. District Court in Camden, would resolve more than 100 lawsuits filed last year by anguished pet owners in the United States and Canada against companies that made or distributed the poisonous food.
The proposed settlement would provide $24 million for a range of documented expenses - such as medical treatment, the cost of the pet food, health screenings, euthanasia, and burial costs - on top of the $8 million already paid out for claims.
Pet owners could receive $900 for "reasonable economic damages submitted without documentation." The document filed last night said such damages could include travel expenses, property damage (to carpets, for example), lost wages, "or any other expense related to the pet's illness or death."
One lawyer in the case said the undocumented expenses also were meant to help compensate people for their emotional distress without referring to them in those explicit terms.
"They're not called emotional damages," said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Getting the defendants to agree to give more than just compensatory damages, which was essential to us, was not an easy thing."
The proposed settlement still must be reviewed by U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman, who has scheduled a hearing for next Friday. If he approves, thousands of pet owners will receive notice of the settlement and have an opportunity to raise objections or opt out and head to court on their own.
The settlement said any money left after the payment of claims would go to animal-welfare charities.
The lawsuits were filed in the wake of the largest pet-food recall in history after owners watched helplessly as dogs and cats inexplicably got sick and, in many cases, died starting in early 2007. The deaths were traced to tainted wheat gluten grown in China.
It was the first of a number of problems involving products from China, including the anticoagulant drug heparin, toothpaste, fish and toys. At least 81 deaths have been linked to tainted heparin from China.
The culprit in the pet food was a chemical used to make plastics that was added to the wheat gluten before it was imported to the United States.
Two Chinese businesses and two executives, along with the owners of a Nevada company, were charged this year in connection with the importation of the pet food. The Nevada defendants are scheduled to stand trial in November.
The federal civil case, meanwhile, has been closely watched by pet owners and the animal-rights community, which hoped it might increase the ability of pet owners be compensated for emotional distress.
Animals have long been viewed as property in the eyes of the law, and few courts have allowed owners to recover for the emotional value of their pets.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said a provision allowing for undocumented expenses might help advance the slow process of having pets recognized as more than mere property.
He said some states already were moving in that direction. "It's a small but increasing number, and I think that's the future, but it will take some time," Tobias said last night.
The main defendant in the litigation was Menu Foods Inc., the Canada manufacturer of about 100 of the tainted product lines, but other companies that made or distributed the food also were named.
In a news release in April, Menu Foods said that its estimate for recall costs remained $56 million, and that the settlement would be funded by various defendants, including Menu Foods and its product-liability insurer.
Debra Waldhauer, a Florida woman whose cat, Baby, suffered kidney damage after eating tainted pet food, said she hoped the scandal would help show that pets were just like family members of the human variety.
"She is my daughter," Waldhauer said of Baby, who is doing better but is still under the care of a veterinarian.
Waldhauer initially sued on her own, but withdrew that court action so she could join a lawsuit filed by an Atlanta law firm.
The idea that pets are mere property doesn't sit well with her. "That just really sets me off," she said.