Widow Sues Petsmart For Selling Killer Hamster

In 2005, Petsmart sold a woman a hamster infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, or LCMV. The woman died of a stroke, and her liver was transplanted into Thomas Magee. He subsequently contracted LCMV and died from complications. His widow is now suing Petsmart. According to MSNBC, the lawsuit claims that “two other people who received organs from this woman died and one became seriously ill.”

The virus isn’t usually dangerous to healthy people, but can pose a threat to those with weak or suppressed immune systems—and, according to Wikipedia, Cylons.

At first we wondered why the hospital wasn’t to blame (if anyone is) for not screening the organs properly before shoving them into people. But a 2005 article (also from MSNBC) on a very similar case—no names are given, but the timeline and details match up—indicates that the donor and her organs were screened and didn’t show any sign of infection. In that article, a Centers for Disease Control official indicates that pretty much everyone was taken by surprise:

Though there’s no evidence that the deaths are anything but rare, recent discoveries that rabies and West Nile virus can spread through donated organs has officials worried that the latest virus might have gone undetected before now.
“We don’t know how commonly it occurs,” said Dr. Matthew Kuehnert, assistant director of blood safety for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re learning as we go here. This is a new phenomenon.”

Petsmart immediately euthanized the rest of the “merchandise” and shipped it to the CDC for testing, so we’re not sure how they’re to blame for negligence in this case.
“Widow sues Petsmart over husband’s death” [MSNBC] (Thanks to Doug!)
“Rodent virus now linked to six deaths” [MSNBC]


Edit Your Comment

  1. GoldHoops says:

    Shouldn’t the hospital be being sued for not testing the organs before the transplant?

  2. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    If anyone were going to sue Petsmart it ought to be the family of the woman who bought the hamster. It isn’t reasonable to expect Petsmart to be able to control whether her organs ended up in other people.

  3. GoldHoops says:

    @GoldHoops: My bad, I didn’t carefully read the post. Wow. The whole thing is very sad and disturbing.

  4. ? graffiksguru says:

    @GoldHoops: Did you even read the article?

    At first we wondered why the hospital wasn’t to blame (if anyone is) for not screening the organs properly before shoving them into people. But a 2005 article (also from MSNBC) on a very similar case-no names are given, but the timeline and details match up-indicates that the donor and her organs were screened and didn’t show any sign of infection.

  5. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: were should be is

  6. bohemian says:

    So exactly how do they test organs before donation? Do they have some broad spectrum test that they run that is supposed to catch any and all infections, viruses or bad bacteria etc? Or do they do a battery of tests, guessing what the most likely infections would be and just doing those?
    There was something on the news last week about a donor that had cancer and gave that cancer to all the recipients.

  7. @bohemian: And how can you screen for a multitude of things when organs are viable only for a short period of time?

  8. Charlie Jane Anders says:

    That is the greatest lawsuit ever! And yes, they should sue the hospital instead…

  9. Xay says:

    From [www.cdc.gov]

    Can hamsters be tested for LCMV?

    We do not recommend testing any pet hamsters. Tests on live hamsters may be inaccurate.

    So if there isn’t a reliable live hamster test for LCMV, how is Petsmart liable?

  10. @bohemian: The test catch the big stuff usually, along with anything that would show up in a standard culture, but are unable to catch everything. If there is suspicion of something (meningitis, congenital disorder, ect) they will do a more rigorous screening.

    The thought process is that if you are so bad off that you have to get an organ transplant then you assume the small risk that comes with it.

    In this case the original woman didnt die of the infection, so there was no sense in wasting time and money checking for something so obscure. This is a classic case of blaming the deep pockets.

  11. JustAGuy2 says:

    Phrase of the day is “deep pockets” – they’re suing PetSmart because (a) PetSmart has $, and (b) it looks better to a jury to sue a company that sold a “defective” hamster than the hospital that’s doing life-saving (usually) organ transplants.

  12. econobiker says:

    Maybe unless they sue everybody, their insurance will not pay up…

  13. bobblack555 says:

    hey asshole lady – sue the hospital that did the transplant, not the store that sold a friggin hamster 3 rungs up the ladder of events.

    By your logic, you could sue the breeder of the hamsters as well as the animals owned by another owner who transmitted the disease to those hamsters and so on and so forth.

  14. satoru says:

    @bohemian: They don’t really do much actual testing for organ donors. Remember that organs don’t really last that long once a person dies, maybe a few hours if you’re lucky. So you can’t really wait for lab results for something.

    However, by looking at the overall health of the donor individual it can give you a good idea if they are a good donor. Also there are fairly simple blood tests that can be done to find COMMON things like Hep and such. Thus screening is mostly done empirically, aside from a few basic measures to screen out common things.

    In this case PetSmart probably can’t be liable. There isn’t even a test for LCMV that’s even remotely reliable, so it’s not like you can say they didn’t test for it. Also hamsters that have LCMV might not exhibit any symptoms, so you could watch them for a month and they’d be healthy but still have LCMV. Again since LCMV infections are rare, there’s not a real pressing need to test for it on a large scale.

    I’m sure Petsmart will just settle to get it out of the courts. But legally they don’t seem to be liable in any legal way for this pretty much fluke infection.

  15. wdnobile says:

    so a company sells a diseased animal which in turn leads to the deaths of three people… and consumerist labels the resulting lawsuit FRIVOLOUS?? wth?

  16. alejo699 says:

    This case is a perfect illustration of Americans’ need to blame somebody, anybody. A new or almost unknown phenomenon, as the CDC director pointed out, is by its nature hard to predict and guard against.
    I understand that the man’s family is distraught. But sometimes people die and it’s not anyone’s fault.

  17. satoru says:

    @bobblack555: The breeders in this case have more liability than Petsmart does in reality. It’s already been established that the disease originated with the distributor, and not with Petsmart. And LVCM does not necessarily show symptoms in hamsters that have it, so PetSmart could not have even found it even if they were looking for sick animals in general.

  18. ExtraCelestial says:

    With everything that unfortunate pet store animals go through before they arrive at their destination it’s truly amazing diseases like this aren’t more prevalent.

  19. philipbarrett2003 says:

    Although I feel sympathy for the family’s losses there are times when stuff just happens. Unless there was negligence on the part of Petsmart (they knew the animal was infected & sold it anyway) I can’t see how this is anything more than damned bad luck.

  20. emilymarion333 says:

    This seems frivolous to me! Why do people have to blame so much – it seems like you are taking a huge risk for taking any transplant and are bound to be problems that arise. Problems does not mean you should always sue!

  21. mikelotus says:

    @Steve Trachsel, Ace:
    so no one is liable? if you are willing to profit off of things by selling it, in this country that makes you liable if what you sell causes injury. whether you knew it, could know it, or whatever, is irrelevant.

  22. satoru says:

    @wdnobile: It’s frivolous in a few ways

    1) The original LVCM infection did not originate within PetSmart. It has been determined the distributor was to blame for the initial infection.

    2) There is no reliable test for LVCM detection. So you can’t say PetSmart was negligent because some kind of test was not performed.

    3) LVCM infected hamsters do not necessarily show any symptoms. Thus even if PetSmart was monitoring the animals health, such an infection would not necessarily be obvious. Any symptoms also can takes weeks or month to even manifest. So you can’t make a claim that if they monitored the hamsters health it would have been caught.

    4) LVCM is a rare infection, and has a very low mortality rate in general. Obviously transplant patients have compromised immune systems which make them less likely to fight off the infection. It is not practical to test for every type of infection whether its for pets, or for organ donors.

  23. satoru says:

    @bobblack555: You can’t really sue the hospital because you sign a waiver that prevents this. In this scenario, the hospital was not negligent in their duties so they’re not liable for what happened. It is unreasonable to have the hospital test for some rare rodent disease for an organ transplant. The original woman died of a stroke, thus there was no indication that she had some other bizarre underlying viral infection to be screened for.

  24. rachaeljean says:


    Somebody get a shipment of hamsters to Starbuck STAT!

  25. Nighthawke says:

    At least they didn’t have to nuke the store from orbit. It would have gotten messy, to say the very least.

  26. Xay says:

    @mikelotus: At best, the breeder is liable. But LCMV is a known risk of owning a hamster (I own two and I am meticulous about how I care for them and how I allow my son to handle them because of the risk of disease) and there is no evidence that Petsmart knowingly sold an infected hamster or had any reasonable way to determine whether a hamster is infected. Many pets are prone to carry diseases that can be passed to humans by flukes or improper handling – Google turtles if you don’t belive me – but a resulting illness is not an automatic liability.

  27. SadSam says:

    I wonder what risks you waive when you accept a donor organ. I would assume you can’t sue the estate of the dead donor for passing along some disease. You probably also sign a release for the hospital, perhaps that is the reason they are not suing the hospital.

  28. @mikelotus: Why is PetSmart financial “liable” in any way? This is why we see the “taking it seriously” line all the time, companies cant apologize for something beyond their control because people are just aching to sue.

    If there was no negligence on the part of PetSmart, no foreseeable way to predict this outcome, no reasonable way to prevent it and no fault able to be put on them then way should they have to pay millions to defend/settle this suit. (Its also no coincidence that she is suing in Mass Superior)

  29. satoru says:

    @Nighthawke: The Orbital Redevelopment Platform division of Homeland Security did receive a petition for an ‘orbital cleansing’ of that paticular PetSmart. However the petition was denied due to a lack of illegal immigrants to man the command center. Also these new solar panels just aren’t giving us the 1.21 JigaWatts of output necessary to do an accurate orbital strike.

  30. sirwired says:

    @mikelotus: Just because you sell something does not make you automatically liable if it kills somebody. Liability also requires negligence. “Negligence” would mean not exercising an ordinary or reasonable standard of care. It is not reasonable for PetSmart to screen every last rodent available for sale for an array of diseases that do not ordinarily cause any symptoms in humans.

    A very large portion of the cats in the U.S. are infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii. While this parasite (which can be transmitted via cat feces/cat litter) is easily transmitted to cat owners, it usually does not cause any symptoms. (The parasite resides in the brain of the human and the cat for life.) However, during a particular stage of Toxoplasmosis, it can cause serious illness in immuno-compromised individuals, and can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Nevertheless, no screening is done by shelters or pet stores for this parasite since it so common and impossible to eradicate from the feline population.

    And this is for an infection that approx. 15% of the U.S. tests positive for. Screening every hamster for a disease almost unheard of in humans would be stupid and wasteful.

  31. cde says:

    A hamster a day keeps the toasters away…

  32. dariasofi says:

    Slippery Slope

  33. lanshark says:

    Not enough $ to sue the hospital, can’t find the original breeder.. the original donor is dead.. oh well, might as well sue whoever is available. PetSmart is a sitting duck here. I’d file a request for a summary dismissal..

    Reminds me of the Sims Guinea Pig Disease. Gotta keep the cage clean.

    I’m a bit ticked off that I most likely have toxoplasmosis. Not as bad as schistosomasis, malaria, or various other tropical parasites which will remain nameless for those of us compulsive enough to google them and gain a new neurosis.

  34. SchuylerH says:

    My amateur, absolutely no training in psychology or grief counseling theory:

    When someone dies of a something that isn’t considered “normal” or “expected” – old age or chronic disease – the survivors are obviously frustrated and angry and the way they cope with that frustration is by trying to find someone or something to blame and then either suing or pushing for legislation or rules changes that (theoretically) could have prevented the death. Sometimes there’s clear negligence or defect that could have – maybe should have – been noticed and fixed earlier. Sometimes, sadly, things just go wrong and while the cause of death is obvious after the fact, it just wasn’t something that would have been anticipated under normal circumstances or would have required an incredible level of vigilance.

    It seems the latter is what happened in this case. I can understand her reaction, even if I don’t agree with her suit.

  35. Saydrah says:

    It’s funny how Consumerist commenters are so quick to blame any individual employee for bad company policy, but so quick to defend a company that is known to abuse and neglect animals in its care and to purchase them from a breeder that’s even worse. Rainbow Exotics brags on its OWN website about using stray cats to control escapees in the warehouse where they breed their animals.

    This is truly a tragedy, because three people would be alive today had someone paid attention to the years of warnings animal lovers have shouted from the rooftops about the dangers Petsmart’s warehouse breeders’ lax standards and neglect pose to humans and pets. Petsmart in Colorado (and probably elsewhere too) recently had to stop selling birds due to a salmonella and psittacosis outbreak.

    The conditions in which these animals are bred and kept are nothing short of horrific. Maybe a tragedy like this will call attention to the problem.

  36. The Porkchop Express says:

    Pretty sure they tell you about the disease on the care sheet you get with the little critter. Most pet stores make you sign a thing that advises you that these diseases are possible.
    I don’t know that they can test ofr/prevent the disease at their level as it may be possible that the little bugger got it after he left the store. I don’t know for sure, but if this goes through…kids everywhere will find it harder to get a pet hamster.

    Oh and I think washing your hands after you touch the rat would keep you safe.

  37. MercuryPDX says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: I have to agree with you there. I think their case is with the hospital.

  38. The Porkchop Express says:

    @Saydrah: “Petsmart in Colorado (and probably elsewhere too) recently had to stop selling birds due to a salmonella and psittacosis outbreak”

    Don’t know about that second thing, but salmonella can come from anywhere and again, washing your hands after you touch an animal will help keep you from getting sick. I thought people knew to do that.

  39. The Count of Monte Fisto says:

    @Saydrah: When all humans live in suitable conditions, then I’ll start caring about the animals.

  40. MercuryPDX says:

    @MercuryPDX: And to qualify that… I think their case is with the hospital, if at all.

  41. BalknChain says:

    @Saydrah: There is a PetSmart in NJ currently under a bird quarantine. It just states on signs that no birds are available for sale and it’s been that way for months. Maybe it’s what you pointed out. I bought a finch this week at a local pet store and had to fill out a form with my name and address because of potential oubreak (I guess).

  42. Mr. Gunn says:

    If Petco’s supplier had been Chinese, thios story would have been spun differently.

    /Just sayin…

  43. nadmonk says:

    While the hospital was the one that performed the operation, as stated by someone before, the time frame for transplanting organs is usually not large. And they usually only test for the most common potential problems. As stated in the article the woman dies of a stroke, so there wouldn’t be any indications to those removing her organs that she had died of LCMV, and my understanding is they usually only do testing if there seems to be an outbreak. If they knew there was an outbreak they would probably test for it, or not harvest the organs, but it is unrealistic to test for EVERY possibly transmittable disease unless there is very good reason to do so. I think it’s safe to say that more organs being harvested (as in 99.999999% of them) have had no exposure to LCMV.

  44. taka2k7 says:

    So what exactly is Petsmart’s euthanization procedure?

    Petsmart immediately euthanized the rest of the “merchandise”

    Who gets this crappy detail? “You drew the short straw, please go kill the cute, fuzzy animals, box them up and ship them to the CDC.”

  45. ChuckECheese says:

    @bobblack555: The hamster started it. Sue the hamster’s family.

  46. ChuckECheese says:

    @nadmonk: Caveat organ transplant emptor.

  47. cde says:

    @ChuckECheese: No, God started it. He created disease ridden hamsters in the first place.

  48. WannaBblonde says:

    @GoldHoops: I don’t understand how someone who has a transplant and doesn’t make it could go back on the animal community for fault. Last I checked transplants are not voluntary but life or death. Nothing is guaranteed and I’m sure that a waiver was signed before the transplant was performed to protect the hospital. The number of forms you have to go through to get care is incredible. I can’t imagine anyone has grounds to sue.

  49. Concerned_Citizen says:

    I believe there was an episode of scrubs just like this. It happens.

  50. Pro-Pain says:

    Why on earth would anyone buy a hamster? I mean seriously???

  51. Consumer007 says:

    you know, if people wouldn’t have sex with hamsters, they wouldn’t get hamster STD’s, livers would be safe, transplants would be safe, the world would be a better place…OK stop the hate mail, just a joke to lighten things up. She was a hamster virgin, she didn’t have sex with it, I’m JUST KIDDING….

  52. Tsalagi says:
  53. Consumer007 says:

    And please…no Richard Gere jokes, okay?

  54. Tsalagi says:

    Forgot to make it clickable.

    [url=http://poorhamster.ytmnd.com/]Poor Hamster[/url]

  55. Tsalagi says:

    I fail BB code 8(

  56. jjason82 says:

    This sounds like an episode of House or something. Who knew stuff like this actually happened?

  57. nursetim says:

    Anyone who is a fan of Battlestar Galactica knows that one of the premises of this season is who is the final of the 12 models of Cylons, so this could be a potential spoiler. Since they are looking for Earth, the series could end just like War of the Worlds when then Cylons arrive.

  58. MrEvil says:

    My hatred of hamsters aside, the donor didn’t die of this illness and probably wasn’t even aware she had it. And since there’s no way of screening pet hamsters for the virus before selling them as pets…what are pet stores to do?

  59. Snakeophelia says:

    The PetSmart at which I volunteer (in Eastern PA) currently has a bird quarantine. It’s a relief not to hear all the incessant squawking when I’m there.

    Personally, I think PetSmart should get out of the business of selling animals, period. I’m glad the one I work at does NOT sell reptiles, which should never be bought from a pet store.

  60. rabiddachshund says:

    Natural Selection via rodent.

  61. ConsumerAdvocacy1010 says:

    This shouldn’t be under “frivolous lawsuits.”

  62. Trai_Dep says:

    I’m callow and immature, true. But before I read further into the article, my thought was, “Good gods, exactly what are they using their hamsters for?”

  63. Alex Brewer says:

    I can’t resist…
    For 99.999999% of organ donations to be LCMV free, there would need to be at least 100 million organ donations per year, as we know there was at least one contamination. Even if there were this many organ donations, with 5% of the U.S. population having seroprevalence of LCMV, approximately 15 million people, there would need to be 1.5 quadrillion organ donations :P I probably messed up some math, but it’s past midnight so…

  64. Alan Thomas says:

    I would think Petsmart might be liable if this is a common hamster illness and didn’t post some kind of warning. (I’m not saying they *should* be liable, but with all the consumer warnings and things out there…)

  65. LUV2CattleCall says:

    Ferrets FTW

  66. SJActress says:



    #5: There’s no way to prove that the hamster was sick BEFORE he got to the woman’s house. The wiki article even said that the disease is easily spread from “regular” mice to household rodents. How do we know the first woman didn’t have a rodent problem in her house?!

  67. joellevand says:

    @ChuckECheese: There you go, blaming the victim! Poor ickle hamster!