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Orange County, California

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John Bisnar
John Bisnar
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What is your pet's life worth?

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It’s not a million dollar question.

If the number of pet owners that we have talked with are any indication, thousands of pets will eventually fall sick or die as a result of the tainted pet food sold by Canada-based Menu Foods.

To many families, whose grief for the loss of a pet is not much different than the loss of a loved one, in their minds, they deserve damages for that pain and suffering if in fact it was caused as a result of wrongdoing

But the law in California and most other states treats pets as personal property – as if they are cars or computers. If I damage your car, I am responsible to pay to fix it or replace it. There is no compensation for your emotional attachment to your pet or your car. Just repair or replace. So vet bills, out of pocket expenses and the replacement value of the pet.

Check out yesterday’s Los Angeles Times article that analyzes the legal implications of the class action suits that are being filed and indications that this law could be changing in the face of mounting pressure on legislators to remove liability barriers.

According to the authors, some of the barriers have already been removed. Appellate court decisions in at least six states permit damages for emotional distress in some instances, said Alan Calnan, who teaches product liability law at Southwestern Law School. California is not among the six, but there have been precedents where pet owners have collected damages for pain and suffering. The article gives the example of a 2004 malpractice case in Orange County when a jury awarded owners of a rescue dog $30,000 for its “unique emotional value” in addition to $9,000 in vet bills.

On top of that, the state of Rhode Island and many cities such as West Hollywood, Berkley and San Francisco have legally defined pet owners as “guardians” – thereby putting animals on the same level as children, which is how many pet owners view their pets.

But in the cases against Menu Foods, pet owners will most likely be entitled to damages to cover their vet bills, the cost of food they purchased and “funeral expenses,” several attorneys quoted in the article believe. Menu Foods has already said it will pay vet bills for animals sickened by its products. Lawyers involved in the lawsuits — filed in California, Washington state, Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin — say they may seek pain and suffering damages for their clients too.

We’ve seen first-hand the pain and grief people go through as they’re losing their pets as a result of this unprecedented food contamination. We talk with upset pet owners every day. It’s a huge tragedy for pet lovers across the nation.

But as someone who is representing the rights of these people, I cannot wait to see how the courts treat these class action lawsuits. With our cases we are not rushing to put our clients in a class action. I do not like the process of my cases being collected with everyone else and settled in a pile. That might happen, but only if I think it proves to be in my clients’ best interest.

Rushing in now, without an attempt to settle claims is about getting media attention. The first to file sends out press releases and attracts attention. Those who wait to see the lay of the land have an opportunity to make the best choices. We’ll give our clients the best shot at the best outcome but we are not likely to get any media attention. Our clients generally like it that way.

Bottom line, there are a world of possibilities on how these cases are going to resolve. I’m betting Menu Foods files for bankruptcy to protect itself before the litigation gets heated up.

Call us for questions or a consultation.