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Meatpacking firms reach settlement on animal cruelty charges

National GovernmentCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemCattleman's IncorporatedU.S. Department of JusticeHumane Society of the United StatesU.S. Department of Agriculture

Several California meatpacking companies that supplied beef to the National School Lunch Program have reached a $3.1-million settlement over allegations of abusive treatment of cattle and other issues.

Westland Meat Packing Co., one of the companies listed in the lawsuit, will enter a consent judgment of $155.68 million. The figure represents the amount the government paid for services, but because Westland does not have the assets, the company and its owner, Steve Mendell, will actually pay $240,000.

This is the largest monetary judgment ever entered in the United States for cases of animal abuse, according to the Humane Society of the United States. It initiated the lawsuit in 2008 after one of its undercover investigators video recorded alleged inhumane cattle handling and improper inspections of downed cattle at a Southern California slaughterhouse and meatpacking facility in Chino: Westland Meat Co. and Hallmark Meat Packing Co.

Also included in the lawsuit were M&M Management, based in Corona Del Mar, and Cattleman’s Choice, based in Commerce, as well as the wife and estate of the deceased Aaron “Arnie” Magidow, a Cattleman's Choice owner. Magidow’s wife was named as his successor and was not accused of any wrongdoing.

The naming of Mendell and Magidow in the case is significant, said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for the Humane Society, because typically in these cases “a few low-level workers get prosecuted for animal cruelty and we don’t see accountability for the owners and investors that we achieved here.”

The accused companies were suppliers for the National School Lunch Program and in 2008 the videos, which showed the alleged abuse, led to the largest recall of beef in the history of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Children across the country depend on the National School Lunch Program to provide them with a healthy meal each day, so we all depend on companies providing food to the program to follow the rules designed to ensure those meals are safe to eat,” Assistant Atty. Gen. for the Justice Department’s Civil Division Stuart F. Delery said. “The Justice Department will pursue aggressively anyone whose unlawful conduct puts the safety of our food at risk.”

The government joined the Humane Society’s lawsuit, filed under the False Claims Act, and added the claim of ineligibility to process beef after discovering that Magidow, who had been convicted of other felonies in the meatpacking business, was a partner in Cattleman’s Choice.

USDA regulations require suppliers to notify the government of convicted felons who are connected to a supplier’s operations but were not made aware that Magidow was operating Cattleman's Choice's facilities.

Susan Leader, who represented Magidow’s wife and estate, as well as most of the defendants by the end of the case, said the settlement should really be seen as a victory for her clients.

The court approved a summary judgment to throw out the false claims case against the Magidows and their estate.

Government prosecutors had argued that Aaron Magidow had instructed Donald R. Hallmark, another defendant, to leave Magidow’s name off an application for the National School Lunch Program contract to avoid any problems in approval.

But in a deposition, Hallmark, who settled allegations against him last year, told Leader that Magidow had nothing to do with the application process.

Although those claims were thrown out, Cattleman’s Choice remained on the lawsuit for the allegations of inhumane handling of cattle, exposing his spouse to future liability.

After the judgment summary, Leader said, government prosecutors approached her about a settlement.

Even though she considered it a “long shot” for the government to be able to prove liability against Magidow’s estate and his wife, Leader said she did not want to run the risk of potentially losing in a trial where “juries can be unpredictable” and opted to settle to eliminate her client’s exposure.

Leader’s co-counsel, Eddie Woods, said the decision also factored in that even if they won, their clients would pay approximately the same amount in attorneys fees as they are paying for the settlement because those fees would not be repaid in the case.

Leader said it was “ironic at best” that the government had joined the lawsuit.

“You have inspectors who are charged with overseeing this, but they’re going to try to point the finger at Arnie Magidow and his wife, who never stepped foot in the place?” she said.

She added that the government sued “anyone and everyone that was involved in the case,” including Magidow who had been dead for a year when the undercover Humane Society investigator recorded the video.

Two defendants, Hallmark and his father, Donald W. Hallmark, had previously settled allegations for $304,130 in October 2012.

The Humane Society will receive about $600,000 from the settlement.

Lovvorn said the case “sends a strong message that people are not going to tolerate cruelty.”

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Twitter: @James_Barragan

james.barragan@latimes.com

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