A $4.8 million default judgment awarded to former customers of a now-closed Bel Air pet store should help deter similar businesses from selling sick animals from puppy mills, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said Tuesday.
A lawsuit against Pets of Bel Air -- where customers reportedly included such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Denise Richards -- was filed in December 2007 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. It alleged the store sold puppies that later became sick or died because they were bred in so-called puppy mills.
The complaint alleged Pets of Bel Air "sold ... puppies for a premium price and thereby duped California consumers out of millions of dollars."
Judge John P. Shook approved the default judgment last Wednesday after the defendants ignored court orders to turn over business documents to the plaintiffs and respond to motions in the case.
"We are pleased that the court has held the defendants accountable for their fraudulent advertising and unlawful business practices," attorney Peter J. Farnese said.
"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," he said.
The store at 2924 Beverly Glen Circle that previously housed Pets of Bel Air is now occupied by Woof Worx, which focuses on animal rescues, according to owner Amy Katz. Pets of Bel Air vacated the location late last year.
Owners of the former business could not be immediately reached for comment, and a telephone listed in court documents was no longer in service.
Last October, Shook certified the Pets of Bel Air suit as a class-action case, meaning an estimated 800 customers who bought puppies at the store between Dec. 28, 2003, and Oct. 7, 2008, will be joined as plaintiffs once they are identified and notified.
Shook is scheduled to rule Aug. 27 whether those customers will notified by direct mail or by a publication that likely would be posted on the Internet, Farnese said.
The lawsuit, originally brought by attorney Wayne S. Kreger, stated that Pets of Bel Air got much of its stock from Midwest puppy mills, all the while claiming the animals were from private breeders.
Kreger said he bought a Chihuahua from Pets of Bel Air in August 2007, and 12 days later the canine died in his wife's arms of parvo, a virus that attacks the digestive system.
"It was a gruesome, miserable existence for the puppy and a traumatic, emotional and terribly sad time for (Kreger) and his wife," the suit stated.
The suit was amended in late January 2008 to add additional plaintiffs -- Brian Hearn, his girlfriend, Christine Mangoian, and Leslie McCaw, who also maintain they unknowingly bought sick puppies at the store.
In a sworn statement in support of certifying the case as a class- action, Mangoian said she and Hearn bought a Yorkshire terrier from Pets of Bel Air in August 2007 for $2,600.
The puppy, Lola, was coughing when they took her home from the store, and a check of her papers showed she came from a breeder in Missouri, a state known for its puppy mills, according to Mangoian.
"I felt duped by Pets of Bel Air's representations about its puppies," Mangoian said in her statement.
McCaw claims to have spent $10,000 in medical treatment on a dog with four different types of parasites and pneumonia.
Mangoian and McCaw were the two plaintiffs seeking class-action status for their suit.
According to court papers filed by a former Pets of Bel Air lawyer before he left the case, the business did not sell puppy mill stock, but rather "happy and healthy puppies that enrich the lives of their customers, and that is a proud boast."
The puppies were obtained from "professional and home breeders," according to the court papers.
But the plaintiffs allege consumers were duped by a portion of the pet store's Website advertisement that stated all "of our babies come from private breeders, locally and out of state (we do not use puppy mills)."
In fact, the Humane Society confirmed that Pets of Bel Air obtained its puppies from known puppy mills, the lawsuit alleged. In addition, store records indicate that all of the puppies came from breeders outside California, according to the lawsuit.
About the time the plaintiffs filed their motion for class certification, Pets of Bel Air "completely overhauled its Website to remove this claim," according to Farnese's court papers.
The store typically bought its puppies for about $400 and sold them for $2,000 or more, according to the plaintiffs.