Tainted pet-food settlement checks distributed

At her Voorhees home, Michelle Nocito follows her 20-month-old son Gage as boxer/pit bull puppies Zena (far left) and Gabba dart across the lawn. Cohiba, a mastiff/American bulldog, watches from the right. The Nocitos' $577 settlement went to the Animal Orphanage in Voorhees.
At her Voorhees home, Michelle Nocito follows her 20-month-old son Gage as boxer/pit bull puppies Zena (far left) and Gabba dart across the lawn. Cohiba, a mastiff/American bulldog, watches from the right. The Nocitos' $577 settlement went to the Animal Orphanage in Voorhees. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2011

Four years ago, Cheri Cutler was among thousands of grief-stricken pet owners who went to court seeking justice after their pets succumbed to contaminated food.

The lawsuits against primarily Menu Foods Inc., the Canadian manufacturer of about 100 of the tainted product lines, grew into the largest wave of animal litigation ever in the American legal system.

Now, Cutler and an estimated 20,000 others are finally receiving checks from the $24 million settlement approved by a federal judge in Camden in 2008 and made final last year by an appeals panel.

For Cutler, the $2,400 payment cannot make up for the loss of her beloved Zeus, a 12-year-old Maltese that died in December 2006. And it is a fraction of the $7,500 she and her husband spent for his veterinary treatment and other expenses. Nonetheless, Cutler said, the epic case should help courts recognize the value of animals as more than mere property, akin to a bicycle or a DVD player.

"It was my hope - really, my dream - that this case would establish animals as more than just . . . chattel in the eyes of the law," said Cutler, head of a Center City marketing and communications firm.

The aggregation of lawsuits - more than 100 with multitudes of plaintiffs - arose from a pet-food recall of unprecedented scope, beginning in March 2007. As cats and dogs fell ill nationwide, scientists searched for the contaminant. It was found to be a chemical used to make plastics that was added to the wheat gluten before it was sent to the United States from China.

Adding to the misery of the bereaved pet owners was the knowledge that they themselves had fed their animals the poisoned chow.

They turned to the law, seeking compensation for vet bills and burials, property damage caused by the sick animals, replacement pets, and even the ongoing care of dogs and cats who had survived the tainted food. But because courts have historically viewed animals as having only bottom-dollar market value, the owners had little chance of getting damages for the emotional pain of their loss.

Sherrie Savett, a lawyer representing plaintiffs, said the case did help advance the legal rights of pet owners.

"We got a very significant economic recovery," she said. With compensation for medical expenses, funeral costs, and property damage, the animal "was treated almost like a person. I am quite proud of that."

Owners also could be reimbursed for up to $900 in undocumented expenses such as wages lost while caring for the animals, and transportation.

Although claimants were not always fully reimbursed for their expenses, they generally got slightly more than 50 percent of claimed losses, Savett said, calling it "real money."

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said he believed the notion that animals are mere property would continue to evolve. In New Jersey, for instance, the state Supreme Court has agreed to rule on whether a dog owner who witnessed the killing of her pet can sue for emotional distress.

Many people already are closer to their animal families than to their human families, Tobias noted, "but the law hasn't caught up with that yet."

Margie Hilgreen of Northeast Philadelphia said last week that she was going to donate $500 of her $1,700 settlement check to the Philadelphia SPCA in memory of her 11-year-old toy fox terrier, Sarah Lee. "She was my favorite dog," Hilgreen said.

Michelle Nocito of Voorhees got $577 for the loss of something invaluable: her Italian mastiff, Goliath, who used to wolf down pouches of what turned out to be tainted food, and had to be put down in March 2007.

Nocito wanted the manufacturer held responsible - that is why she joined the litigation. "It was never about the money," she said. "It was more about the principle."

So Nocito, a financial adviser, knew exactly what she wanted to do with her settlement: donate it to the Animal Orphanage in Voorhees, where she and her husband adopted Goliath more than a decade ago.

"What we got from them . . . was something that we can't replace," said Nocito, whose older American bulldog, Cohiba, was recently joined by two pit pups.

Nocito said she would like a pen at the orphanage to be named in memory of Goliath. But whatever is done with the money will be fine, she said, as long as it "better[s] the life of another animal."

Cutler and her husband now share their Center City home with a bichon frise and a shih tzu - and their son Jacob, whose college fund will expand with the $2,400 settlement check.

She never wanted to be involved in a lawsuit, Cutler said, but felt compelled to do something to show what Zeus meant in her life.

"Hopefully," she said, "it made some kind of impact."


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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