A Day of Reckoning

By on May 7, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

I have written many times about the downed animal abuse scandal at the now-shuttered Hallmark/Westland Meat Company in Chino, Calif. An HSUS undercover investigator documented appalling abuses of downed dairy cows, and a series of actions followed: the largest recall of beef in the nation’s history, the conviction of two workers for animal cruelty, the closure of the Hallmark plant, and the issuance of new, upgraded federal regulations banning the slaughter of downer cattle.

Downed cow pushed with forklift at Hallmark/Westland
© The HSUS

Last week, a new chapter of this story unfolded when a federal district court in Los Angeles unsealed a major False Claims Act lawsuit filed by The HSUS against the owners of Hallmark/Westland. The suit—recently joined by the U.S. Department of Justice—seeks to recover more than $150 million in taxpayer money spent on potentially tainted ground beef by the USDA and shipped to school lunch programs in dozens of states.

I asked Jonathan Lovvorn, our vice president and chief counsel for Animal Protection Litigation and Research, to offer his observations about this case, and what it means for the hundreds of other slaughterhouses that operate under federal contracts requiring suppliers to ensure the humane treatment of animals at their facilities.

At the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed an obscure law designed to crack down on the sale of sick and injured horses and mules to the Army by unscrupulous defense contractors.

The statute—known as the False Claims Act—empowers private citizens with knowledge of fraud against the U.S. government to bring a lawsuit, called a qui tam suit, on behalf of the United States to recover significant civil penalties and treble damages. Such whistleblowers are statutorily entitled to 25 percent of the total recovery—a powerful incentive for workers to blow the whistle on government fraud.

This Civil War era statute came full circle last week when The HSUS’s lawsuit against Hallmark/Westland for selling meat from sick and injured dairy cows was unsealed by the federal court in Los Angeles. After a hiatus of nearly 150 years, the False Claims Act is once again being applied to animals too sick or injured to walk.

The suit fills an important gap in the story of the Hallmark/Westland downed animal abuse scandal. Close observers of the events surrounding Hallmark know all too well that despite all the recalls, criminal prosecutions, and policy reforms enacted in the wake of the inexcusable events in Chino last year, a few prominent players have yet to see their day of reckoning—the owners.

This is not uncommon in a factory farm abuse case. In a typical case—and there have been dozens over the last five years—the owners of facilities caught on tape abusing animals rapidly and effectively shift all responsibility for such abuses to low-level employees—many of whom end up the target of criminal prosecution for abuses undertaken at the direction of company management.

This was the certainly the case at Hallmark. Although two workers were prosecuted and convicted of criminal animal cruelty, the actual owners of Hallmark/Westland faced no criminal charges at all, and, despite the closure and sale of the company, faced no individual financial liability whatsoever for the gross abuse of animals at their facility.

This all changed last week. After more than a year of waiting, The HSUS’s False Claims Act against the owners of Hallmark/Westland was finally unsealed, and is now moving forward in federal court in Los Angeles.

What’s more, last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it has elected to intervene in the case and join The HSUS in seeking to hold the owners of this now infamous operation accountable. The Department of Justice intervenes in less than 25 percent of all Qui Tam actions, and this is the first time the powerful statute has ever been deployed against the mistreatment of farm animals.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this statutory hammer for securing treble damages against slaughterhouse operators like Hallmark/Westland who routinely ignore the humane handling requirements of their federal contracts. With virtually no state or federal humane law enforcement for farm animals, factory farmers have had little to fear when their actions have resulted in appalling abuses of animals.

That all could change with the precedent set in this case. The risk of personal liability for treble damages—coupled with the promise of multi-million dollar bounties for workers that blow the whistle on animal abuse—could serve as a powerful deterrent for slaughterhouse owners operating in an area with woefully insufficient federal humane law enforcement.

The meat industry should take notice that if they defraud the American taxpayers by abusing animals, there will be serious consequences. And the Department of Justice should be commended for joining The HSUS in seeking to ensure that unscrupulous federal meat suppliers do not profit from the gross and systematic mistreatment of animals in violation of federal law.

Farm Animals

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