A jury has found that Petco was not negligent when it sold a pet rat to a 10-year-old boy who became sick and died after handling the animal.
Aidan Pankey died of an ailment known as rat-bite fever, the result of a bacterial infection he contracted from a rat that was bred for sale as a pet.
A San Diego County Superior Court jury deliberated about a day before reaching verdicts late Wednesday. The verdicts were read Thursday morning in Judge Eddie Sturgeon's courtroom.
The panel found that Petco Animal Services Inc. knew or should have known that the pet rat was potentially dangerous when "used or misused" by a consumer in a reasonable manner. However, the jury said, Petco did not fail in its duty to adequately warn consumers of the potential danger and instruct them on how to handle rats safely.
They determined that neither Petco nor its supplier, Barney's Pets, was negligent in this case.
Jury foreman James Wigdel of San Diego said the panel had "robust" discussions in the deliberation room. Ultimately, he said, the panel believed that the defendants had done a lot to protect the community from disease, by testing the animals and posting warnings for customers of the potential danger.
"They did what they could to prevent any kind of spread of disease," he said.
The attorney for Petco did not speak to reporters immediately after the verdicts were announced. The company released 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," the statement read. "The safety of people and pets is always Petco's top priority."
John Gomez, one of the lawyers representing the boy's father, had asked the jury to award Andrew Pankey $20 million in damages for the loss of his son.
Outside the courtroom, Gomez said a major reason his client wanted the case to go to trial was to get the message out that many of Petco's rats tested at random — about half, according to the plaintiff's data — carried bacteria that could cause rat-bite fever. He said the family planned to take the evidence they presented in court to lawmakers and public health agencies all over the country.
"I'm quite confident there's going to be changes," the attorney said, adding that he would file an appeal. "And then we're going to come back and try this case again, and we're going to win it."
Aidan's grandmother, Sharon Pankey, said after the verdicts were read that she wanted customers to know they can ask Petco to test an individual rat for the presence of bacteria that could cause rat-bite fever. She warned other consumers that there's a difference between a "healthy" rat and a "safe" rat.
"Don't assume that something you buy from a big corporation is safe," she said.
Aidan died in June 2013, about two weeks after he and his grandmother went to the Petco in Carmel Mountain Ranch and picked out a male rat.
He named the rodent Alex.
Aidan became ill with flu-like symptoms and was taken to a doctor, who told his family that Aidan should rest and drink plenty of liquids and return in a few days if he did not improve.
When his symptoms worsened the next night, Aidan's family called paramedics. He was taken to the hospital, where he died early the next morning.
An autopsy conducted later revealed he died of a result of Streptobacillus moniliformis infection — rat-bite fever.
There is no evidence that Aidan was bitten by the rat, one of two he kept as pets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Streptobacillus moniliformis is part of the normal respiratory flora of rodents. It can be transmitted from animals to humans through bites or scratches, or just by handling a rodent that carries it.
Rats that have this type of bacterium do not show any outward signs of disease or infection.
Littlefield writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Petco and the plaintiff's attorney.