Individual Barkworks shops have been sued all over Southern California as has the pet store chain that, once again, today finds itself scanning a legal complaint alleging customers were lied to about dogs for sale that were supposedly obtained from so-called "puppy mills."
But despite what you may have heard from the plaintiffs, the Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, "this is really not a new complaint," according to Daniel Silverman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer with Venable LLP who represents the owner of Barkworks and calls the 1 1/2-year-old allegations "baseless."
Puppy mills are commercial breeders who value profits over the well-being of the dogs they raise, often in substandard conditions. Foes of such farms estimate 4,000 puppy mills thrive in the United States and produce more than a half million often sickly pets a year. Thus the campaigns and lawsuits to stop them.
The latest legal salvo finds the nonprofit ALDF, which bills itself as the nation's leading legal advocacy organization for animals, amending its legal complaint to bring a class action "on behalf of [a] broad class of misled puppy purchasers."
Filed in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, the complaint alleges the chain with stores in Orange, Riverside, Ventura and Los Angeles counties systematically violated California consumer protection law by tricking consumers into buying sick puppy mills dogs. It is claimed that Barkworks' customers were explicitly told that puppies were "not from puppy mills" and had been examined and treated by veterinarians prior to sale–only to discover those were falsehoods when their new pets immediately fell seriously ill.
"The public has a right to know where they are getting their puppies from," explains Stephen Wells, the ALDF executive director. "Barkworks has deceived consumers for years about the horrific conditions suffered by the puppies they buy, sell, and profit from. Dog lovers have a right to the truth."
Why the class-action amendment? Documents have been uncovered detailing "the widespread nature of Barkworks' deception and hearing story after story of heartbroken purchasers who had to rush their new puppy to the vet just days or even hours after bringing her home," ALDF alleges. "Barkworks' illegal business practices include misrepresenting puppy mills as 'reputable' breeders, providing inaccurate breeder license numbers and addresses, fabricating breeding certificates, and lying about providing veterinary care to the fragile animals."
But Silverman counters to the Weekly that "the care and well being of dogs and puppies are the highest priority" at the family owned pet store business that started in the 1970s. He explained the company would not have lasted that long if it sold sick animals, not only due to the bad reputation that would give the chain, but the costs to make things right with customers.
Barkworks guarantees to care for ill puppies until they are well enough to be returned to buyers, according to the lawyer, who claims that in the roughly 2 percent of the sales where that has happened, it had ended up costing the company 150 percent more than the purchase price to treat the pooch.
Silverman also claimed Barkworks does not buy directly from reputable breeders but third-party brokers who are responsible for supplying healthy pets, right down to inspecting farms and transporters. The company would end its business relationship with a broker known for supplying sick dogs, he said.
"Barkworks is reputable," Silverman said, but the company had also been willing to listen to opponents. At the urging of animal-rights activists, the company tried for six months to only obtain puppies from shelters and rescue organization "and it didn't work. Those puppies fell sick more than the ones we get from breeders. We also tried hobby breeders, you know, backyard, mom and pop breeders. In all those cases, the puppies were sicker" than the ones from certified breeders.
For these reason, Silverman says he and his clients are confident the ALDF suit "won't succeed."
If anyone has a legal case, according to the lawyer, it is the breeders being "defamed" in the court filings. Though not representing the breeders, Silverman cited an 84-year-old woman in Missouri he took a deposition from. No longer in the business because of her age, "she was extremely offended" to have her former business labeled a "puppy mill."
"The statement implies poor conditions, a lack of care, crowded pens, underfed, and it is absolutely not true," Silverman said. "I'm not saying there aren't breeders out there that are [puppy mills], but we will not be purchasing from them if we find out they are because we are not in the business of selling sick puppies."
He also brought up this interesting tidbit: The ALDF was part of a 2013 lawsuit against Barkworks that ended with a settlement where the company agreed to include in contracts with buyers language explaining puppies can get sick and identifying the individual animal's breeder and broker.
"We've been down this road before," Silverman said. "These are inflammatory allegations. ALDF and groups like this just want press."
They've obviously succeeded here.