Pet-food deaths: Are pets ‘family’ or ‘things’?

Did you say “family�? Nope. Not to be too cynical about it, but for the most part, it often seems that pets are said to be “family “when someone’s trying to sell you something based on your love for the animal … and “things� when something goes wrong, such as when a contaminated pet food kills your pet. and you want monetary compensation.

A controversial New Jersey proposal is trying to change the rules of the game. Obviously, companies don’t like the prospect of perhaps having to pony up for “pain and suffering� over a pet’s death, but veterinary associations also argue that larger settlements will lead to higher veterinary costs, as malpractice insurance soars. (In this, they have a point. Look at the mess human medicine is in.)

In this morning’s Asbury Park Press (sorry, but I simply cannot read “Asbury Park� without thinking “Springsteen� — I guess it’s just my age), the author of the proposed legislation, N.J. state Assemblymember Neil M. Cohen, takes aim at the critics:

Contrary to the assertions in a recent editorial (�Another bone-headed bill,� May 23), my legislation to better protect pet owners against manufacturers of tainted pet food products was crafted for one purpose: protecting consumers.

The bill is sorely needed. Currently, state product liability laws fail to provide pet owners sufficient means to fight back if their pets are injured or killed due to ingestion of contaminated pet food. My legislation would provide a more level playing field for consumers against manufacturers of pet food products that turn out to be poisonous.

The bill is not an attempt at creating new product liability litigation opportunities for lawyers. Quite the contrary.

Realizing that the scope of the bill as introduced was too broad, we amended it in committee to remove a clause that would have allowed pet owners to sue for emotional pain and suffering. We added provisions that would place potential pet food contamination cases into binding arbitration, eliminating the need for juries to have to decide how much someone loved their pet while keeping money-hungry lawyers on a short leash, as binding arbitration offers lawyers very little in the way of financial compensation.

Moreover, veterinarians — who do not normally manufacture, produce, distribute or sell pet food — would be held harmless under this bill, which only targets pet food manufacturers or retailers who knowingly disregarded a pet food recall.

Pet food manufacturers need a stronger obligation to produce a safe product. And pet owners deserve to know they have a meaningful legal recourse should that not happen. Everyone expects the food they purchase at the store, be it for themselves or for their pet, to be safe to consume. Advocating any standard short of that is, well, just barking up the wrong tree.

Interesting … and I’m guessing we’ll see more such legislation proposed. What do you all think, pro and con?
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