Boy’s Rat Bite Fever Death Case Sent to Jury

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A San Diego jury heard closing arguments Tuesday on whether Petco sold a “defective product:” a pet rat killed its 10-year-old owner with rat bite fever.

Aidan Pankey died in severe pain on June 11, 2013, two weeks after his grandmother bought him a pet rat for $7.49 at a Petco store in northern San Diego County.

Aidan’s father Andrew Pankey sued Petco and its rat supplier Barney’s Pets in 2014.

Even though Aidan was not scratched or bitten by his pet rat Alex, he contracted rat bite fever. The disease can be spread by handling the animals and not washing one’s hands afterward, by being bitten or scratched, or contact with the animal’s bodily fluids.

Though rare, rat bite fever can be deadly if left untreated. The disease is often misdiagnosed by pediatricians and emergency room doctors; cases are typically confirmed by infectious disease experts.

Pankey’s attorney John Gomez told jurors Tuesday that Alex the rat had a “manufacturing defect,” and that “corporations should not subject their customers to needless harm.”

He said the manufacturing defect should cost Petco and Barney’s Pets $20 million in damages..

Gomez showed internal emails from Petco managers and veterinarians that showed the pet company was aware that its customers and employees contracted rat bite fever after coming into contact with rats at its stores. One email chain showed that some top Petco officials considered not selling the rats as a way to deal with the problem.

Gomez said a random sample of rats Petco tested for rat bite fever after the critters bit Petco employees showed more than half of the rats were carriers of the disease.

“It’s really akin to a game of Russian roulette. There’s no way to predict if you’ll get a rat carrying the disease,” Gomez told the jury.

Petco’s director of veterinary medicine, Dr. Thomas Edling, planned to present an “oral accounting” to a Centers for Disease Control committee on how many people became infected with rat bite fever after coming into contact with Petco rats, Gomez said. He suggested the presentation was never given because Petco does not want to stop selling rats and lose millions in revenue from the high profit margins in the animals, cages and accessories for them. An internal risk assessment on rats and rat bite fever did not persuade Petco management to stop selling the rodents, the attorney said.

Also at issue is whether rat purchasers were properly warned they could contract rat bite fever from the animal.

“If you buy something at a store, you’d kind of like to know if it could cause death,” Gomez said.

In one year, Gomez said, Petco spent only $5,760 testing rats for rat bite fever across its 1,500 stores: 26 cents per store. He said Petco puts the responsibility on testing its rats on the vendors.

Gomez told the jury that Petco should either test each rat for $16 — twice what the Pankeys paid for Alex — warn customers of the dangers of rat bite fever, including death, or stop selling the animals altogether.

“These were not rats that were cavorting around in the field and then picked up. These rats were not created by God. They were created by a corporation to make money,” Gomez said.

Petco attorney Kimberly Oberrecht disputed the claim that had Petco tested for rat bite fever, Aidan’s death could have been prevented.

She said that Alex the rat tested negative for the disease, even though the medical examiner and other experts found Aidan had died from the disease after contracting it from his pet.

Oberrecht said Petco has been a leader in trying to reduce incidents of rat bite fever, which is one reason the company paid money to develop the swab test Pankey’s attorneys want the company to use on all its rats.

“Petco is trying to be responsible to reduce the rate of rat bite fever. It can’t get rid of it completely, but that’s the best that they can do and that’s what they did,” Oberrecht said.

Oberrecht also disputed the claim that 50 percent of Petco’s rats were carriers of the disease, calling the testing cited by Gomez a “snapshot in time from testing of one enclosure.”

She said Petco warns about the disease because the company knows “it can’t get rid of rat bite fever.”

She called Aidan’s death an “extraordinarily rare” occurrence, “not something that’s happening every day.”

Oberrecht said none of the experts called as witnesses could nail down a percentage of rats that carry the disease, or the number of reported cases, because no agency, including the Centers for Disease Control, compiles data on rat bite fever.

In a bit of courtroom drama, Oberrecht brought in stacks of “Harry Potter” books, each series of which contains about 1 million words. She stacked five copies of each book in the series on a table in front of Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon to represent the 5 million rats Petco sold from 2001 to 2013.

Of those 5 million rats sold, she said, only 45 claims were filed by people claiming to have contracted rat bite fever from a Petco rat. Those claims could be represented by the number of words in the first paragraph of the first Harry Potter, Oberrecht said. She added that some of the cases are unconfirmed and the number may actually be lower.

Barney’s Pets attorney Christopher Faenza called his client the “third wheel” in the case. He said that no experts called during the three-week trial demonstrated that Barney’s violated any laws or standards of care with the rats it provided Petco.

He said Barney’s Pets has spent $500,000 trying to breed out rat bite fever, but that the rats bought from a laboratory and introduced to Barney’s facilities all died.

Faenza said the infected rats Barney’s provided did not have a “manufacturing defect” because rats, by design, are carriers of the disease.

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