May 26, 2009
Pet food settlement stalled by appeals
Legal wrangling over melamine contamination of 2007 drags on
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service
Payments in a $24-million settlement of claims spurred by the largest pet food recall in U.S. history remain hung up in court.
Although the settlement was approved last November by U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman in New Jersey, two separate parties have appealed the settlement, effectively blocking payments indefinitely.
“This is holding it up for everybody,” said Lisa Rodriguez, a lawyer serving as liaison counsel for the 100-plus class action suits covered by the settlement.
Rodriguez said the appeals have barely advanced. “We’re just in a holding pattern right now. I don’t think there’s been a briefing scheduled yet. We’re still some time away from having the Third Circuit (Court of Appeals) even address it unless they try to deal with it summarily,” she said, referring to a quick dismissal.
A total 24,950 pet owners in the United States and Canada have applied for compensation under the settlement, according to Russell Paul, co-lead counsel for the class. Those claims are being evaluated by the accounting and consulting firm Heffler, Radetich & Saitta LLP in Philadelphia.
The claims arose from the widespread contamination of pet food by melamine and cyanuric acid, which was discovered in 2007. Investigators traced the problem to wheat gluten and rice protein made in China. Unscrupulous suppliers spiked their products with nitrogen-rich melamine, an industrial chemical not approved for consumption, in an attempt to boost apparent protein levels.
The tainted product was imported by the U.S. companies ChemNutra Inc. and Wilbur Ellis and supplied to numerous pet food makers.
The melamine, along with the chemical byproduct cyanuric acid, together formed crystals in the kidneys of dogs and cats that ate the tainted food, leading in some cases to renal failure and death.
The contamination forced the recall of more than 180 brands of pet foods and treats involving 12 different manufacturers and dozens of retailers. In all, more than 60-million containers of pet food products were recalled.
Pet owners whose claims are judged eligible may be reimbursed for expenses such as the cost of veterinary treatment, the cost of carpeting ruined by a sick animal, the cost of a dead pet or its fair market value and the cost of a new pet.
The plaintiffs who are appealing the settlement are Margaret Picus and Daniel Kaffer in one case and Jim W. Johnson and Dustin Turner in the second case.
Picus and Kaffer’s objection stems from separate legal suits involving the use of the phrase “Made in the USA” by pet food manufacturers who obtain ingredients from China.
According to court documents, Picus and Kaffer are concerned that the pet food settlement will release the manufacturers from the mislabeling claims.
Their lawyer, Kyle Nordrehaug of La Jolla, Calif., said he would not comment on pending litigation.
In the second case, the lawyer for Johnson and Turner, Jeffrey Weinstein of Tyler, Tex., reportedly contends that the settlement is not fair, reasonable or adequate.
Weinstein did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages requesting comment. However, he told the Malakoff News, a weekly newspaper in Texas, that the situation should not be handled in a one-size-fits-all manner. “Tainted pet food cannot be settled as a nationwide class because every state has different laws,” he was quoted as saying.
Because of variations in state law, he argued, plaintiffs should receive settlements based on their states’ laws. “It wouldn’t be everybody just gets the same thing,” he said.
Weinstein also said $24 million may not be enough to adequately compensate all individuals with valid claims.
Details of the settlement are posted at http://www.petfoodsettlement.com
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