Robert Dole courthouse
U.S. General Services Administration photo
A $12.5 million settlement by Hill's Pet Nutrition is scheduled for a final hearing on July 27, likely to be held at the Robert J. Dole Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas (pictured).
Hill's Pet Nutrition has agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit brought by owners of animals affected by canned dog foods recalled in 2018 and 2019 for containing toxic amounts of vitamin D.
The preliminary settlement, approved Tuesday by Judge Julie A. Robinson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, is set for a final approval and fairness hearing on July 27.
"I just want to commend you all, for all of the work that you've done on this; I'm so impressed with each and every one of you," Robinson said to attorneys during a video conference.
"I wish the general public … could have had a fly-on-the-wall experience, to see how hard you worked, how experienced you are, how serious you take this, how all of you are motivated in this case to do what's right by the consumer public," she continued.
The deal is more than a year in the making, mediated by retired federal Judge Wayne R. Andersen. Lawyers on both sides of the case say $12.5 million (minus legal and administrative expenses, fees and taxes) should be enough to fully reimburse hundreds of claimants for their out-of-pocket expenses, whether for veterinary care or reimbursement for the food. If it's not, claimants will get a fraction of what originally was intended.
The number of probable claimants was not discussed. "Everyone will be made whole," Robinson said. If any money is left over, it will be distributed evenly among the claimants.
The Hill's vitamin D-related recall involved approximately 675,000 cases of canned dog food sold between Sept. 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019. According to court records, the batches of foods were contaminated by excessive levels of vitamin D in a premix made by DSM Nutritional Products Inc., a worldwide vitamin supplier.
It's unknown how many dogs were sickened, some fatally so, as a result of eating the affected dog food. Signs of vitamin D overdose in dogs range from drooling, constipation and/or vomiting, to seizures. Other common indicators include increased urination and thirst.
While vitamin D is an essential nutrient, too much can cause hypercalcemia, or abnormally high calcium levels in the bloodstream. Elevated calcium can lead to bone loss and kidney or bladder stones, in addition to other maladies. Left untreated, the condition can lead to renal failure and death.
The incident — reminiscent in size and breadth to the melamine scandal of 2007, which similarly resulted in a legal payout of more than $12 million — spurred more than 30 class actions on behalf of hundreds of pet owners against the company, most of which were consolidated into a single nationwide case and narrowed to 71 class representatives, all seeking economic relief for injuries including death.
The next steps toward compensating owners require the court's approval of a class action notice, claims administrator and the development of a website where claims can be filed and expenses submitted for reimbursement. The claims process is to be divided into two groups: class members who have dog injury claims and class members who have food purchase claims.
A concern raised during Tuesday's hearing involved how to mitigate fraud by phony claimants trying to tap the settlement funds. Hannah Chanoine, an attorney for Hill's, said that in her experience, fraud is a "ubiquitous problem in consumer class actions."
"Fraud is very real," she said. "… Google the phrase 'class action free money' and you will see a disheartening number of bloggers giving step-by-step tutorials."
As an example of how this can happen, Rachel Schwartz, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, speculated that some veterinarians who have been reimbursed directly by Hill's for expenses related to investigatory testing and medical care of patients might also demand "reimbursement from the pet owner for that exact same bill."
Schwartz added that she has no reason to believe such a scenario exists, but if it were to arise, she said, the claims administrator is empowered to investigate and evaluate claims.
Other attorneys remarked that the issue was not a high priority, and the judge agreed. "Hill's knows who they paid," Robinson said.
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