Buying a pet for your child is a rite of passage into parenthood. Whether it is a golden retriever or a goldfish, the pet is bound to cause at least some problems at the house. Thankfully, most of the problems can be remedied with a little carpet cleaner or a toilet flush. But, what happens when those nominal pet problems turn into problems for the children themselves? What if the new pet comes packaged with a communicable disease which infects the child? According to a new lawsuit out of California, you blame the pet store. According to an AP report, the family of a 10-year old boy has filed suit against Petco after their son died allegedly as a result of a bacterial infection he contracted from his pet rat. The boy’s grandmother purchased the male rat on May 27, 2013, to serve as a companion to the boy’s female rat. On June 11, the boy developed severe abdominal pain and died later that night. The cause of death was determined to be an infection commonly known as rat-bite fever caused by exposure to an infected rat. The Center for Disease Control has tested the rat to determine whether it was infected; however, those results have not been made available. The lawsuit alleges that Petco was negligent in failing to detect the disease and in failing to adequately warn about the potential risks.
This is obviously a tragic accident, but it is not one without questions regarding liability. First, it remains to be seen whether the rat was infected at the time of purchase. We here at Abnormal Use do not pretend to be experts on rat infections, so we will refrain from speculation. Nonetheless, this question will be pertinent to the litigation. Second, what is the culpability of the seller of a pet? If the seller was an individual rat breeder, rather than a national retail chain, would this matter be handled differently? It is not uncommon to obtain a pet and discover later that it is stricken with a health condition. As is the case with humans, pets unfortunately get diseases. The risk is inherent with the purchase of any pet. The basis of this suit, however, is not that the rat had a disease, but, rather, that the family wouldn’t have purchased it had they known.
At this point, we do not know what steps Petco took to inform these buyers. We do not know if the rats were tested. We do know, however, that Petco actually warns customers online and through fliers in its stores that all rats are potential carriers of the infection. Petco also warns that children under the age of 5 and people with weakened immune systems should “consider not having a pet.” It is unclear whether the family failed to see these warnings or whether they did but consider them to be inadequate. If the family did see the warnings, then it seems apparent that every rat was at risk.
Regardless of what steps Petco took, it should have been known that rats are carriers of disease. Everyone hears of the horrors of the bubonic plague at some point in their lives after all.