Toxic Pet Food Settlement May Increase to $32M

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.

Now, pet owners are asking that criminal charges be brought against the pet food companies and, today, a federal judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments on a proposal to bring the amount pet food makers and distributors would pay to settle hundreds of lawsuits to $32 million.  Experts believe that the arguments will also be focusing on the legal status of pets.

For instance, pet owner Donna Elliott sent U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman a picture of her late boxer, Abby.  “How do you answer the statement on the claim form, what was the value of your pet?” she asked. “My companion was everything in the world to me.”  In her letter, Elliott pled with Hillman to implement a criminal probe of the companies involved.

In April, lawyers representing over 200 plaintiffs and dozens of companies announced they had reached a deal for pet owners in the United States and Canada.  And, in addition to the $8 million they had already agreed to pay owners of sickened pets, the companies would put up another $24 million for the settlement.  Under that agreement, owners would be able to be reimbursed for medical expenses, euthanasia, burials, the cost of replacement pets, and other costs.  The payouts were even available to those people who did not keep any receipts for either the pet food or the costs of the pets’ illness and death.  Plaintiffs could receive up to $900 per animal.  Now, plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case are requesting payments of $6 million from the fund.  If any money remains after all the plaintiffs are paid, it would go to animal-welfare charities.

But, the agreement did not include financial compensation for the humans’ pain and suffering over the illness and injuries to and deaths of their pets.  Meanwhile, in one court filing this month, the parties involved in the settlement explained:  “This settlement does not pretend to do what it cannot—which is to make people fully whole for their incomprehensible losses,” the filing said.  “The settlement is, however, a reflection of strenuous efforts to secure the maximum economic relief available.”  Notices of the settlement appeared in a variety of magazine ads including in People and Cat Fancy.

Over 9,500 people in the U.S, and Canada instituted claims as of September 30; just over 100 people preserved their rights to sue separately and 28 filed objections to the settlement.  One such objector, Deborah Hook of California, said her cat Boo was her best friend.  She followed up by sending Hillman a copy of a memorial she’d written to Boo as well as a petition signed by over 200 people asking for a criminal case to be brought against the pet food companies.

It remains unclear if Hillman might give final approval for the settlement today.  In the meantime, those wishing to make claims have until November 24 to submit their information.

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