The trial is believed to be the first in which an animal was considered a “product” subject to claims for product liability and manufacturing defects.
Jurors returned the verdict to Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon after deliberating for one day. The animal did not bite 10-year-old Aidan Pankey, but rat bite fever can be transmitted by handling an infected animal or contacting its bodily fluids.
The jury found the Petco rat was not a defective product because it carried the disease. It found that while Petco should have known rats can infect pet owners with rat bite fever, the warnings the pet store issued to rat purchasers, including the Pankey family, were sufficient.
Andrew Pankey sued Petco in 2014 after losing his son to the disease the previous year. He sought $20 million for the loss of his son, who died suddenly after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, confirmed after his death to be rat bite fever.
Aidan died two weeks after his grandmother bought him the pet rat, which he named Alex. Jury foreman James Wigdel said he believed Petco and its co-defendant supplier Barney’s Pets “did a lot to protect the community from the disease.”
Sharon Pankey, Aidan’s grandmother, said the jury’s decision sent the message: “Buyer beware.”
She said it took three months for the Centers for Disease Control to confirm that Aidan had died from rat bite fever, and that when she talked to other families who had been affected by the disease, she realized there needs to be more public education on the danger.
“Aidan was never bitten. We had no idea what was going on with his little body. Petco could do a better job on warnings and education,” Pankey said.
Sharon Pankey said she wants the CDC to start collecting data on rat bite fever cases and that she plans to lobby her elected officials to come up with healthcare policy to address the disease.
Andrew Pankey did not speak to reporters after the verdict.
John Gomez, the Pankeys’ attorney, said he was “frankly surprised” by the verdict, and that the family plans to appeal.
Petco attorney Kimberly Oberrecht did not speak after the verdict, but the company issued a statement on its website.
“We remain deeply saddened by the Pankey family’s tragic loss and are committed to continuing to provide the highest level of safety to our customers in the future,” Petco said. “We agree with the jury’s ruling, which validates our position that proper care, protocols and guidelines were adhered to by Petco in this case.”