WASHINGTON, March 3, 2014 – PetCo, one of the leading pet stores in America, is taking some deserved heat. A 10-year-old San Diego boy wanted a mate for his female pet rat, so he purchased a male from PetCo.
Wanting to play with his new pet male rat, the boy was bitten. The rat was bacteria-infected and Aidan Pankey died from rat bite disease, which can be contracted by a bite or scratch from an infected rat. The family’s lawsuit alleges two alternate legal theories: strict liability and negligence.
This case might set a precedent for the world of pet rat lovers and flip the fond memory of the 1972 film Ben upside down.
This case is probably the second bite at the apple against PetCo. In 2010 George Heitzman sued PetCo for a rat bite from which contracted rat bite fever. His lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with no findings of responsibility on the part of PetCo.
Now, the decision in Pankey vs. PetCo might just spring the trap that silences rat lovers and reminds us that rats are truly dangerous, disease carrying varmints that can kill or get us seriously sick, despite memories of Ben, and despite countless who would swear rats are wonderful, fuzzy, loving and affectionate little animals.
The case may also determine that you own one at your own risk.
One question is if rats are wild animals?
A legal ruling has never been made, however the popular program Animal Planet article / slide show 10 Rat Myths states:
Some people may fancy rats as pets, but for the most part, a rat in the house is not considered a good thing. Rats have been plaguing humans — and giving them the plague — for thousands of years.
Rats are indeed to blame for spreading diseases by transporting fleas and mites that harbor deadly pathogens. As well, rats are a serious health threat for other reasons. They can spread some serious diseases by contaminating food and water with their fur, urine and droppings.
A rat, by definition, is a pest animal. Science Daily defines a pest animal as one that has characteristics regarded as injurious or unwanted. An example of serious pests are those which transmit human disease, such as rats and fleas, which carry the plague disease, or mosquitoes which vector malaria.
According to the U.S. Humane Society, rats transmit more human diseases than any other life form except the mosquito. Some of these are bubonic and pneumonic plague, murine typhus, salmonella, leptospirosis, Hantavirus, and tularemia.
Is PetCo responsible for Aidan’s death?
Strict liability laws place responsibility without the need for the victim to prove carelessness or fault. The standard applies to animal cases where “wild” animals, considered inherently dangerous, are known to have the ability to cause harm regardless of how well trained they might be and regardless of efforts the owner might take to protect against harm to others.
If a rat is a wild animal, it is likely that “yes,” PetCo will be responsible.
The law however distinguishes wild animals. An owner of a domesticated animal, which includes dogs, cats and horses, is strictly liable for the harm the animal causes only if the owner had actual knowledge that the animal had the particular trait or propensity that caused the harm. The trait must be a potentially harmful one, and the harm must correspond to the knowledge.
Rats are known to bite. This known propensity is clearly there for a court to hold PetCo responsible here under strict liability law.
If the Pankeys do not win on their strict liability theory, their negligence theory may prevail. Negligence law requires that the Pankeys prove that (1) there was a duty owed to them (to keep them safe from harm); that (2) there was a breach of that duty (PetCo knew or should have known of the danger and failed to act); and that (3) as a result of the failure there was an injury (this one will not be disputed).
There is no real issue with whether there is a duty to keep customers safe.
Of note, an argument about cost is not relevant. If it costs too much and the law requires that PetCo must keep customers safe, then the law does not give a rat’s a… about that problem.
Knowing that rats bite, the “duty” issue becomes whether PetCo should have been required to test for the bacteria in the rats they sell, and if that answer is “yes”, whether in this case they did so.
The Pankey’s attorneys relate that PetCo knew of the dangers, but failed here. They say that:
- The animals were not properly vaccinated, but instead got sloppy “batch immunizations” that did not eradicate the bacteria; (
- Batch immunizations can cause errors, which increases the risk of selling a sick rat to customers; and
- PetCo required its employees to receive vaccinations for rat bite fever, indicating that the store did not have confidence in the rats’ inoculation procedures.
If these allegations are true, PetCo may bite the dust.
In negligence law, there are defenses to otherwise successful claims. In California, the defense of comparative negligence provides that if the Pankeys knew, or should have known of the danger of keeping a rat, their negligence in doing so could reduce the amount of the compensation they would otherwise receive. A finding would be made of their percentage of “fault” and it would then reduce their compensation by that percentage amount.
Next, with all of the known information about rats, it could be found that the Pankeys assumed the risk of keeping a rat, and this could completely bar their recovery.
Why in the world would anyone want to own a rat?
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.