A New Jersey couple is trying a new legal strategy against a big Pennsylvania dog kennel with a long history of consumer complaints.

The couple say they bought an 8-week-old labradoodle named Maya with a clean bill of health, only to discover the puppy had a deadly disease. So they are taking the sellers to court - in New Jersey.

Lewis and Stephanie Ostrander, of Upper Township, are suing under New Jersey's strict consumer fraud law. They claim Joyce and Raymond Stoltzfus, who operate CC Pets L.L.C. in Peach Bottom, Pa., sold them Maya in November knowing she had canine parvovirus.

"We watched this dog disintegrate in our arms," said Lewis Ostrander, a 32-year-old computer engineer.

In the suit, filed in Cape May County in February, the Ostranders claim the Stoltzfuses violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act by selling a dog that was terminally ill and therefore unfit for sale.

The Ostranders' lawyer, Garen Meguerian of Paoli, said he and his clients waited to go public until the defendants had filed their answer.

In that answer, filed last week, the Stoltzfuses denied the allegations and said they had complied with the law. They also said New Jersey courts lack jurisdiction because the dog wasn't purchased there.

The Stoltzfuses also countersued, claiming Lewis Ostrander defamed them in an Internet blog and in news interviews.

Reached by phone last week, the Stoltzfuses' lawyer said neither he nor his clients would comment on the case. "Due to the newness of the suit, it would be inappropriate," lawyer David Azotea of Atlantic City said.

The Ostranders originally filed a complaint under Pennsylvania's "puppy lemon law," but the state Attorney General's Office chose not to pursue it, saying no pattern of "deceptive conduct" had been shown.

So the Ostranders turned to New Jersey courts because they live there - and because its consumer law is considered one of the nation's strongest. In most cases, plaintiffs need only prove intent to defraud. In other states, such as Pennsylvania, plaintiffs have a heavier burden and must prove actual fraud.

"The New Jersey law includes not just deception or misrepresentation, but any unconscionable business practice," said Joan Pransky, a New Jersey lawyer who has represented consumers in fraud cases.

Also, consumers who prevail under that law are entitled to three times the amount sought.

"We believe that a New Jersey court will have a better handle on the application of the state's laws to the facts of this case," Meguerian said.

The Stoltzfuses' dog sales have been the subject of consumer complaints and government scrutiny since the mid-1980s, when federal inspectors found their kennel, then known as Puppy Love, was selling to stores without a federal license for wholesaling dogs.

The volume of complaints about sick dogs bought from the kennel helped lead to the 1996 passage of Pennsylvania's "puppy lemon law," guaranteeing consumers refunds for sick or defective dogs.

Since then, the state Attorney General's Office has taken action against the Stoltzfuses a number of times. In 1997, it sued to close the kennel, but a state court refused the request for lack of evidence.

Under a 2005 consent agreement - sparked by 171 consumer complaints and a finding that a previous agreement had been broken - the couple paid $75,000 in fines and had to certify the health of each dog sold.

At the time, Attorney General Tom Corbett hailed the agreement as the "toughest restrictions ever placed on a dog seller in Pennsylvania."

The Stoltzfuses soon changed their kennel name and kept selling dogs. They advertise 55 breeds on their Web site and run ads in the region's newspapers, including this one.

CC Pets acts as both breeder and broker: it buys dogs from other breeders as far away as Ohio, and sells to customers throughout the region. It moves a lot of dogs: 1,776 last year, state inspectors reported.

Complaints from buyers, some of whom say they spent thousands to nurse sick dogs, have continued. Libby Williams, who runs New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, a nonprofit group that tracks complaints against breeders, said she has received 13 detailed complaints against the Stoltzfuses about sick dogs since the 2005 consent decree, including three with the same disease that killed Maya.

The Attorney General's Office acknowledged receiving recent complaints but said they don't add up to proof the Stoltzfuses have violated the 2005 consent decree. "By all accounts they are still abiding by the terms," office spokesman Kevin Harley said.

He said the office could not resolve the Ostrander case because the couple sought full reimbursement of the vet costs ($4,300) and the puppy lemon law allows victims to recover only double the purchase price ($1,600). In addition, Harley said, the Stoltzfuses provided a vet certificate as required under the consent agreement stating that the dog appeared healthy six days before the sale.

The Ostranders were newlyweds. They figured a puppy would be their "practice child." They answered CC Pets' Internet ad for labradoodles, the fashionable mix of Labrador retriever and poodle.

On Nov. 5, the Ostranders say, they drove to the kennel, eyed a litter in a barn stall, and chose a tan female. They said they paid $530 and received paperwork certifying that Maya had had her shots and was disease-free.

Within hours, they say, the pup had diarrhea and was vomiting blood.

They say Joyce Stoltzfus warned them the dog might have diarrhea or get carsick, so they hoped it would clear up. It didn't, and three days later, a vet diagnosed Maya with canine parvo, an often-fatal digestive-tract disease. She spent four days in a veterinary hospital, receiving blood transfusions and IV fluids. On Nov. 15, with the vet's opinion that Maya could not recover, the devastated couple decided to euthanize her.

When they said goodbye, Lewis Ostrander said, they were warned that Maya was too contagious to touch.

"We ignored the warning and reached in the cage to pat her on the head and nose," he said. "It was the saddest thing. She was barely breathing."

By then, the Ostranders say, they'd spent more than $4,300 - most of their wedding-gift money - on vet fees. They also destroyed rugs, furniture, even some lawn. They say the vet insisted on that if they wanted a new dog within eight months - the virus was that contagious.

Lewis Ostrander said his vet signed a document stating that Maya was ill by the time of sale and never should have been sold.

The Ostranders have since gotten a new dog and are expecting their first child. They say they want to recover their costs and to help protect others.

"It was . . . like our hearts were ripped out," Lewis Ostrander said. "We just hope that no other family has to go through this."