Monday, July 09, 2007

Bring in the lawyers: the sharks circle Menu Foods

Once upon a time, I was a champion of tort reform. I am, after all, a physician. I was a country doc for years, and I lived in fear of the trauma of medical liability litigation. It is a corrosive and nasty fear. The axe falls where it will, and the destruction is great.

Alas, I have followed the entropic path of all wounded romantics into a regretful accommodation with the limits of human nature. We may yet develop an alternative to the erratic and often unjust vagaries of medical malpractice litigation, but it will take a long, long time for reasons too complex to fully describe here. (In brief, health care is not a market operation, but even if it were we'd run into the same problems as described below.)

In the world of corporate behavior, however, the choice is easy. Americans have chosen, for six years now, to dismantle the protection of government. Libertarian theory tells us the "market" should replace that protection, but that theory depends on the rational choice of consumers who are completely overwhelmed and increasingly sheep-like. That leaves us with the lawyers.

This is from a lawyer sponsored web site, a site devoted to Melamine litigation that's essential to protecting not only the health of our pets, but also the health of our children:

More Court Dates on the Menu, in the Wake of Menu Foods Recall

Trenton, NJ: In the aftermath of the huge Menu Foods pet food recall this past spring, the New Jersey state legislature is considering joining two other states - Illinois and Tennessee - in granting pet owners the right to sue for loss of companionship and reasons other than economic loss - and to claim damages up to a specific cap.

The legislation differs from current civil law statutes, which limit pet owners to the right to litigate for economic damages only.

Neil Cohen, the Assembly Deputy Speaker, introduced the Bill in the New Jersey State assembly after finding several brands of the recalled pet food still on store shelves in New Jersey.
About 100 brands of pet food manufactured by Menu Foods of Canada were ordered recalled back in March after the food was found to be contaminated with melamine, an industrial binding agent that's toxic to animals and can result in kidney failure. Scores of treasured pets were sickened, and many died after eating contaminated pet food.

Under U.S. law, pets are classified as property, and while there are provisions for criminal charges if a pet is abused, current civil law only allows pet owners the right to sue for economic damages if a pet is harmed, or dies.

The new legislation, if enacted in New Jersey as it has in Tennessee and Illinois, would grant plaintiffs the right to sue pet food manufacturers, producers or distributors of adulterated pet foods, or any other person or persons who might have contributed to the contamination that may have caused, or led to a pet's illness or death.

The proposed Bill would also clear the way for compensation over loss of companionship, costs of veterinary care, training, and any other unique value the pet may have had. A show dog, for example.

A cap of $15,000 would be placed on total damages payable.

According to an article published this month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet owners have been in for a rude awakening when they discover just how low animals - including pets - are positioned in the eyes of the law. Pets have been shown to contribute high value to their owners overall, and a unique value in certain circumstances. There has been a push to reflect that value in legislation.

Therapy dogs, for example, are known to represent a source of real comfort to sick, frail or elderly patients. Guide dogs are yet another example of animals which perform a valued service.

Currently, there are at least 50 class-action lawsuits filed against Menu Foods, and there may be more given the scope of the recall, and the number of pet owners affected. In the beginning of June the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed more than 4,000 reports of pet deaths in the wake of the Menu Foods recall, and the FDA is currently in the process of wading through a backlog of 21,000 calls...

...Veterinary associations oppose the idea of non-economic rewards for pet injury or death; the American Veterinary Medical Association, for one, fears that the proposed New Jersey legislation will drive up the costs of veterinary care, and could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

While Cohen's bill was motivated by the tainted pet food recall and targets that specific circumstance, some like the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association feel that the legislation could open the door for other loss-of-companionship lawsuits, such as vaccine reaction or an unsuccessful surgery. Time will tell.

However, as pet owners continue to challenge existing laws which place their pets no higher up the importance scale than a coffee table, and as more States bring in legislation clearing the way for the right to seek non-economic damages, the pets will finally have their day in court...

Menu Foods Legal Help

If your pet has suffered or died as a result of eating any of these pet foods, please contact a lawyer involved in a possible [Menu Foods Lawsuit] who will review your case at no cost or obligation.

It will drive up the cost of veterinary care, but more significantly it will inflict a lot of the anxiety upon vets that physicians no. It will also, I suspect, significantly improve the quality of veterinary care -- which is not always what it could be. Alas, in our imperfect world, we need the lawyers. We need Menu Foods to go down in flames, and we need the lawyers to attack across a wide range of American industry.

I wish it were not so.

No comments: