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A federal judge got growling mad at a pet food manufacturer whose insurance adjuster had direct discussions with plaintiffs suing over allegedly contaminated products, although they were represented by attorneys. U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman ordered Menu Foods Inc. to stop the contacts and to identify the lawyers who may have said they were proper. “I want to know the names and bar admissions of all the lawyers who advised Menu Foods on its communications with the putative class,” he said at a hearing in Camden, N.J. “I want to know the content of the telephone messages. I want to know what scripts are given to the people who are calling people live on the phone and what they’re being told to say, and in particular anything that they’re being told to say in response to any questions by the parties they’re contacting.” Hillman was incensed that the calls were made during the weekend of May 19, despite his cautionary instruction on May 18 – in response to earlier rounds of calls – that plaintiffs represented by lawyers not be contacted. Nevertheless, represented plaintiffs said in affidavits that an insurance adjuster, Crawford & Co. of Atlanta, questioned them on the phone about their claims and asked them to reconsider their decisions not to talk with the company. The plaintiffs lawyers say the adjuster was trying to extract information that could be used as a litigation defense. One of the plaintiffs lawyers, Lisa Rodriguez of Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards, had written to Hillman on May 21, asking that he allow plaintiffs counsel to send Menu Foods’ lawyers a list of pet owners represented by counsel so the company could remove their names from its contact database. The company’s lawyer, Edward Ruff of Pretzel & Stoffer, told Hillman at the hearing that he had informed his client about the May 18 order to stop the calls. Menu has since posted a summary of Hillman’s May 24 order on its Web site, www.menufoods.com, adding: “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.” Hillman’s order comes amid mass litigation by pet owners across the country, consolidated as In re Pet Food Products Liability Litigation, claiming contaminated food caused the deaths of their cats and dogs. On March 16, Menu Foods, based in Ontario, Canada, with a plant in Pennsauken, N.J., recalled the products, which are sold under 100 different brand names, including Wal-Mart’s Ol’ Roy and Procter & Gamble’s Iams. The contamination has been tied to whole wheat flour imported from China that was allegedly tainted with melamine, a poisonous chemical. About 120 federal suits have been filed in Arkansas, California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. They seek compensation for veterinary care, medical monitoring and other expenses, damages for negligence and breach of express and implied warranty and attorney fees and costs. Courts traditionally have viewed pets as property and have allowed damages only for the cost of replacing an animal. But the plaintiffs lawyers argue that pets are special property because their owners become emotionally attached to them. The U.S. Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation has not picked a venue for the consolidated case but New Jersey is a likely choice since the food was made there, said Michael Ferrara Jr. of Ferrara Law Firm, who along with co-counsel in Chicago and San Francisco represents more than a dozen plaintiffs. “Judge Hillman already has his finger on the file,” said Bruce Greenberg of Lite DePalma Greenberg & Rivas in Newark, whose firm represents at least 13 plaintiffs. “The fact that he is one of the only judges who has done anything may weigh in his favor.” This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal, a publication of ALM.

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