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Defunct pet store Pets of Bel Air fined $4.8 million in lawsuit alleging it sold puppies obtained from puppy mills

August 11, 2009 | 12:00 pm

A puppy at Pets of Bel Air

A default judgment in a lawsuit filed in 2007 against the now-defunct L.A. pet store Pets of Bel Air will award $4.8 million to customers who bought puppies there.  The judgment by Superior Court Judge John P. Shook came about eight months after the attorney representing Pets of Bel Air left the case; in the time since the attorney's departure, defendants have failed to respond to court motions. 

The lawsuit was filed by attorney Wayne S. Kreger, who purchased a Chihuahua puppy at the store in 2007. Within 12 days, the puppy had died of parvovirus.  Later, the suit was amended to include additional plaintiffs who also said they had also purchased sick animals at the store.  About the time the plaintiffs moved to classify the suit as class-action, the store quietly removed wording on its website stating that its puppies were not obtained from puppy mills, according to court papers.  In October, Shook approved the suit's class-action status.

"We are pleased that the court has held the defendants accountable for their fraudulent advertising and unlawful business practices," Peter J. Farnese, the plaintiffs' attorney, told NBC Los Angeles after Shook's default judgement was announced.  "We hope this case has helped to expose the practices of their industry, and that this judgment will protect other consumers and serve as a deterrent to other pet stores in California and elsewhere who obtain puppies from puppy mills."

In December 2007, the Humane Society of the United States disclosed the findings of an undercover investigation it conducted on the store's business practices.  Despite the store's claim that its puppies were all obtained from private breeders, the investigation revealed otherwise, demonstrating that many had came from puppy mills.  Further, some of the suppliers of Pets of Bel Air's puppies had been cited for their failure to comply with animal welfare regulations, including, in one case, a faulty waste-management system that allowed  "the waste to flow out onto the ground and on other animals," the Humane Society said.

Shortly after a press conference in which the Humane Society made its case against Pets of Bel Air, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services shut down the store for selling puppies without the proper permit and for failing to provide veterinary records to the department.  But the store's owner, Tom Demick, told our colleague Carla Hall that he had simply forgotten to pay for the permit and would rectify the situation immediately.  As for a video the Humane Society provided as evidence of the store's wrongdoing, Demick called it "twisted" and insisted that the group had "cut that segment short." 

According to NBC Los Angeles, Judge Shook will decide later this month how best to notify some 800 other Pets of Bel Air customers (which reportedly have included celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears) of the judgment. 

At least one good thing has come from the pet store's closure: a new pet store, called Woof Worx, opened in its place.  Woof Worx, which is owned by a former Pets of Bel Air employee, deals only in needy animals obtained from L.A.-area animal shelters and rescue groups.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A puppy on display at Pets of Bel Air in December 2007.  Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

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