Consumer lawsuit against CC Pets moves forward in NJ court

Jury selection is expected to begin Monday in New Jersey in a consumer lawsuit against a large Pennsylvania kennel.

The trial in Cape May County comes more than two years after a judge ruled CC Pets L.L.C. could be sued under New Jersey state consumer laws.

Lewis and Stephanie Ostrander, who live in Upper Township, sued C.C. Pets alleging that the Labrador-poodle mix puppy they bought in 2006 was diseased and dying. The lawyer for the kennel had asked the New Jersey court to dismiss the suit, saying that the company was regulated by Pennsylvania.

Kennel owners Joyce and Raymond Stoltzfus have a long history of consumer lawsuits and run ins with federal and state authorities dating to the 1980s. They are the subject of the largest consumer settlement involving pet sales in Pennsylvania, as well as numerous dog law violations.

Also named in the suit is CC Pets' veterinarian, Tom Stevenson of Twin Valley Veterinary Clinic in Honey Brook, Chester County. Stevenson's license to practice veterinary medicine was suspended in May pending the outcome of a trial on animal cruelty charges. Stevenson is alleged to have placed a puppy under scalding water and cut off a part of its tail without using anesthesia. 

In the most recent action against the Stoltzfuses, a Commonwealth Court judge in March ordered CC Pets closed for six months and fined its owners Raymond and Joyce Stoltzfus $166,000 for violating terms of a 2005 consent petition filed Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Joseph C. Visalli ruled on July 11, 2007 that the lawsuit could be heard because the kennel company had sufficient personal jurisdiction in New Jersey. Lawyers representing the Stoltzfuses, of Peach Bottom, Pa., argued  there was not enough evidence to establish personal jurisdiction in New Jersey.

Visalli noted that defendants advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is not only circulated in New Jersey, but has New Jersey editions. The judge also said that the defendants advertise on a Web site, which includes testimonials from several states, have sold dogs to at least three other customers in New Jersey, and intended to sell their dogs to customers residing in other states, including in New Jersey.

Visalli also wrote that "defendants used allegedly fraudulent misrepresentations regarding the health and condition of the labradoodle they sold to the Plaintiffs to induce them to purchase the dog, and bring it back to New Jersey."

The Ostranders paid $530 for the 7-week-old puppy; it died within five days. They spent more than $4,300 on vet bills and had to remove carpets, bedding and other furnishings from their home because the material could have remained contaminated by the parvo virus.

They had filed a complaint in Pennsylvania, but the state Attorney General's Office decided that no pattern of "deceptive conduct" had been shown.

In February 2007, the Ostranders sued in Cape May County, alleging that the kennel violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, which is considered among the strictest because plaintiffs need only prove an intent to defraud. In other states, including Pennsylvania, actual fraud must be proved.

The Stoltzfuses, who sell about 1,700 dogs of various breeds each year from their kennel, denied the allegations and countersued the New Jersey couple, saying Lewis Ostrander defamed them in an Internet blog and in news interviews.

Previously operating under the kennel name Puppy Love, the Stoltzfuses have been the subject of hundreds of consumer complaints and government scrutiny dating to the 1980s. So voluminous were the complaints against the kennel in the 1990s, that the Pennsylvania "puppy lemon law" was enacted. And in 2005, after 171 consumer complaints were lodged against them - from consumers in Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and New York and elsewhere - the Stoltzfuses were fined $75,000 and agreed to certify the health of each dog they sell.

In March, Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania found the Stoltzfuses' had repeatedly violated the consent petition by failing to identify themselves in classified ads as required. The complaint followed a review by the Inquirer that was brought to the attention of the Attorney General office. A spokesman for the Attorney General said last week the $166,000 fine has been paid by the Stoltzfuses and there is no evidence of the kennel not complying with the closure order which ends in October.