An animal cruelty lawsuit has been settled against a California hatchery after disturbing undercover video footage emerged earlier this year.
Nonprofit animal protection organization Compassion Over Killing (COK) filed a lawsuit in January based on an undercover investigation of Cal-Cruz Hatcheries, Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif. The group released a video revealing hatchlings with ripped skin and exposed organs being thrown into bins, trapped under machinery and drowned.
COK, represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), argued in the lawsuit that the video evidence constituted animal cruelty. This week, the group finalized a settlement and court order with the hatchery.
According to the settlement agreement that ALDF emailed to The Huffington Post, Cal-Cruz and its president, Brian Collins, agreed to pay COK $7,500 in legal fees. Collins is also "no longer owning, possessing, controlling, handling or being in any way legally responsible for the welfare of animals other than companion animals used for non-commercial purposed, and has no plans to do so in the future," the settlement says.
"This Agreement is the result of a compromise, settlement, and accord of disputed claims, and shall not be considered an admission of liability or responsibility by any of the Parties. In fact, Cal-Cruz and Collins expressly deny any liability or responsibility in this matter," the settlement adds.
Collins told HuffPost that Cal Cruz Hatchery had decided to close last October "completely unrelated to the suit." He said that the operation relied on two customers, and one had decided to build his own hatchery, while the other "decided to leave the business for economic reasons, and that left us with such a low volume, it wasn't worth it to stay open."
Whole Foods Market, which once had loose connections to the hatchery through a supplier, made clear that it would have no ties to the hatchery after the video footage emerged in January.
Collins added that the undercover investigator working at Cal Cruz Hatcheries "under false pretenses" documented "isolated incidents," parts of which he's "sure" must have been edited. "Some of those incidents probably did happen, but the whole process is not like that," he said.
As an example, he said the image of a half-open egg on the floor needed context, because "you don't know if it was picked up within a minute, five minutes ... it might have been dealt with immediately." Collins said he witnessed some of what was documented in the video, but that they dealt with those incidents.
Carter Dillard, litigation director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, disputed the claim that videos may be taken out of context or staged. "These organizations rely on the veracity of their work to get donations. If someone wants to show this is falsified, they better be able to back that up."
Dillard added that he had no evidence suggesting Cal Cruz had plans to close prior to the suit. “Let’s just say the parties disagree on that point, and there’s conflicting evidence," he said. According to the settlement, "Cal-Cruz is presently dissolving as a corporation and liquidating its assets such that it will soon cease to exist as a corporate entity in form and function."
This was the first time an organization has used the California Business and Professions Code to get a court order under the animal cruelty law, Dillard said.
"This groundbreaking case paves a new way to seek -- and achieve -- justice for abused farmed animals," COK general counsel Cheryl Leahy said in a press release.
The treatment of animals at Cal Cruz may not be that unique. Undercover video footage continues to emerge alleging abuse at factory farms, as various states consider implementing laws making it illegal to gain access to a farm facility under false pretenses.
"What you see in these videos is exactly what those laws are intended to hide," Dillard said. Had a similar law been in place in California, he said, "The investigator would have risked being prosecuted instead of the abuser."
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