In the wake of the tainted pet-food scandal, some pet owners, aided by trial lawyers and advocacy groups, are trying to achieve human-like status for their animals in our civil courts. If they succeed, it may become much more costly — and risky — to own a pet in America.
Many of America’s estimated 65 million dog and cat owners are justifiably outraged at the news that popular brands of pet food were contaminated by the chemical melamine. Although the Food and Drug Administration has attributed only 16 dog and cat deaths to the contamination, veterinarians have reported thousands of cases of renal distress and failure since shortly after a large maker of pet foods began importing wheat gluten and rice concentrate from China. FDA inspectors are now investigating whether Chinese importers purposely spiked the food with melamine because the chemical shows up as protein on nutritional tests.
The crisis has prompted some 50 class action lawsuits against domestic pet-food brands by trial lawyers who are recruiting owners of stricken pets as clients. Under traditional legal precedent, the damages in these cases are limited to what you paid for your pet and what you’ve spent in food and vet care, plus any additional bills for having your pet treated for food poisoning. But trial lawyers and some animal-rights activists are hoping to persuade legislators and the courts to allow judgments for noneconomic damages, including awards that take into account the pain and suffering of owners.
As the owner of two dogs that have been conferred full citizenship in my own household, I can sympathize with those who have been victimized. But I also know that if these efforts succeed, suits involving pets will soon come to resemble the rest of our civil justice system, benefiting lawyers and a few litigants at the expense of the rest of us. Owners, trainers, rescue groups and humane societies that do valuable work will all be vulnerable to potentially enormous liability and forced to pay more for everything from vet care to insurance.