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Rosie Smells a Rat

A human boy bought a pet rat from a nationwide retailer. The pet rat was infected with bacteria which is common to rats, but deadly to humans, and the boy died from Rat Bite Fever.

During the Covid-19 pandemic that many believe originated from the sale of an infected animal in China, a California appellate court protected the retailer selling animals infested with deadly pathogens, instead of the innocent boy who bought the pet.

In Pankey v. Petco Animal Supplies, Inc. (2020) —Cal.App.5th —, 2020 WL 3445816, 10-year-old Aidan Pankey and his grandmother visited a Petco store to purchase a male companion for Aidan’s female pet rat. Two weeks after purchasing the male rat, poor Aidan developed a fever, and grew increasingly lethargic.

Sadly, Aidan soon died from rat bite fever (RBF), an infection caused by the bacteria streptobacillus moniliformis. Blood and tissue samples taken from Aidan’s rats revealed the bacteria was carried by the male rat Aidan bought from Petco.

Aidan’s parents and Aidan’s estate sued Petco. The case went to trial and the trial court refused to instruct the jury on the consumer expectations test, a legal test used by humans to determine whether a productive is defective.

A human expert testified at trial that RBF is a disease of humans, not of rats. The bacteria that causes RBF does not sicken the carrier rat. Nobody asked the rat whether it felt sick.

The jury found in favor of Petco. Aidan’s father appealed.

In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that a live pet animal sold in its unaltered state is not a “product” subject to the design defect consumer expectations theory of strict products liability. Absent a “designed” “product,” there can be no design defect. The Court held that a rat carrying streptobacillus moniliformis is not in a diseased condition, i.e., affected with a disease or lacking in health or soundness.

According to the Court, pet rats in their natural state, even carrying the bacteria, are neither diseased nor designed. This canine finds rats in their natural state to be repellant, but that wasn’t relevant to the Court’s decision.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Dato said, “A product is defective if it creates an unacceptable risk of harm to human beings. That the rat did not look or feel sick has no bearing on this analysis.” Recognizing a live pet as a “product” appropriately allocates the cost of a defective animal to the breeders, suppliers, and retailers who placed the animal on the market and had the opportunity to detect and prevent the spread of disease.

Now, I’m just an old momma dog, but I agree with Justice Dato. Seems common sense that humans who profit from breeding and selling animals should take responsibility for the hidden condition of a pet that might harm an innocent child like Aidan.

Petco was in the best position to know Aidan’s pet rat might have streptobacillus moniliformis. Petco had a responsibility to test the rat before selling it to Aidan.

It’s only a dog’s opinion, but immunity to strict liability means retailers are free to sell animals carrying vectors potentially fatal to our unsuspecting human friends.

Rosie sincerely hopes other appellate districts will reach a different conclusion.

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