May 26, 2007 -- From USA Today
The pet food company that recalled 60 million cans of contaminated dog and cat food repeatedly made harassing phone calls to pet owners who had lawyers and said they didn't want to talk, even after a judge ordered the firm to leave them alone, court records show.
Lawyers from six firms representing clients who claim their pets were harmed by Menu's pet food asked a federal judge in New Jersey Wednesday to stop Menu from "bullying" people who had called the company since the recall was announced March 16, according to their court filing.
U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman in Camden, N.J., agreed with the plaintiffs, describing the calls as "aggressive," according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by USA TODAY.
"It's one thing for two people to sit down at the table and voluntarily agree to settle their case. It's another thing to harass people on weekends through automated phone calls," Hillman said to Edward Ruff of Pretzel & Stouffer, Menu's lawyer.
Hillman ordered Menu Foods to have no contact with anyone who believes their animal was injured by its product unless a lawyer representing them is involved.
Ontario, Canada-based Menu Foods has hired Crawford & Co., an insurance adjustor in Atlanta, to contact pet owners who called the company to report animal illnesses or deaths, according to the hearing transcript.
At a previous hearing on Friday, May 18, the judge had cautioned Menu and Crawford that they should not contact people who had joined one of the lawsuits against the company. Legally, Menu cannot contact those plaintiffs directly but must go through their lawyers.
But in affidavits presented in court Wednesday, pet owners said they received calls that weekend from Crawford representatives who pressed them to answer questions even after being told the owners had hired lawyers. In some cases, the pet owners also received multiple calls from Crawford's computerized phone banks after telling representatives they were represented by attorneys, according to the affidavits.
"Menu's representatives asked owners to sign releases which waived their right to get advice from a lawyer," said attorney Jay Edelson in an interview.
His Chicago-based firm Blim & Edelson represents more than 600 pet owners.
"It appears that the company was engaging in a cynical strategy, designed to settle some of the strongest claims cheaply and induce pet owners to give up information it might be able to use to defend against others," Blim & Edelson said in a letter Friday that was sent to clients and posted on Internet blogs for pet owners.
Ruff said in court that he told his clients about the judge's instruction after the May 18 hearing, but because it was the start of a holiday weekend — May 21 was Victoria Day in Canada — the message may not have been fully communicated, according to the transcript.
Hillman was unyielding.
"It seems to me that Menu Food is out to do whatever Menu Foods wants to do in a way that could adversely impact the rights of possible members of the class action suit," he said, according to the transcript.
Calls to Ruff's office seeking comment Friday were not returned.
Operators at Crawford directed USA TODAY to call back Tuesday after the holiday.
Menu posted a notice on its website after the hearing, saying it could not have direct contact with individual pet owners "for the time being" because of the court order.
"In light of the order, we regret that we cannot communicate with you at this time. As soon as the court permits, we intend to resume efforts to resolve claims directly with pet owners. We will post additional information when we are able," the notice says.
Since mid-March, Menu has recalled wet pet food products sold under more than 100 brand names, including Procter & Gamble's Iams and Wal-Mart's Ol' Roy.
The Food and Drug Administration has linked the contamination to wheat flour imported from China that was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. The FDA's investigation also has revealed melamine-tainted wheat flour was mixed into pet foods made by other companies, and animal feed and fish feed.
Although the FDA has not provided an official count of pet deaths associated with the recall, it has said unconfirmed reports received from pet owners total more than 4,000 deaths.
Menu is facing dozens of lawsuits stemming from the recall. This week a federal multi-district litigation panel will meet in Las Vegas to determine which district court will hear the cases against Menu. The panel is expected to announce a decision by mid-summer.