Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed suit Thursday (April 28) against Family Dollar Stores after a rodent infestation in its West Memphis distribution center led to a Food and Drug Administration safety alert.
Rutledge is seeking punitive damages, restitution, civil penalties and injunctive relief under the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Each violation is subject to a fine of up to $10,000. Each instance of selling a potentially hazardous product would be considered a separate violation, the complaint says.
The state seeks an order suspending or revoking the company’s ability to do business in Arkansas. It wants Family Dollar to pay restitution to consumers. It also wants the company to pay the state’s costs for the investigation and litigation.
The state of Arkansas is the sole plaintiff and seeks a jury trial. The complaint says the amount of damages should be determined at trial.
The complaint says the company under its parent Dollar Tree, Inc., knew about the infestation since at least January 2020, but still allowed the products to be sold. Hundreds of employees worked at the distribution center, which distributed products to 85 stores in six states.
In March 2021, Arkansas Department of Health inspectors found “significant rodent activity where human food and pet food were stored” at the 850,000-square-foot distribution center, the complaint says. Management said it was aware of the rodent issues. Inspectors reported the next month that the company had not taken effective measures in response.
In January 2022, Family Dollar employee Robert Bradford posted to his Facebook page videos of photographs of rats at the center. WREG, a Memphis news station, broadcast some of the content. Bradford said he was fired after he posted a video where he tried to feed a rat.
“There are sixty-one aisles in the warehouse; you are going to see them from one to sixty-one,” the complaint quotes him saying. “They are running around. They are on the floor, and they are in boxes.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began an investigation Jan. 11, 2022. Within days, Family Dollar stopped distributing all products from the center.
The complaint says the FDA issued a safety alert on Feb. 18 stating, “Conditions observed during the inspection included live rodents, dead rodents in various states of decay, rodent feces and urine, evidence of gnawing, nesting and rodent odors throughout the facility, dead birds and bird droppings, and products stored in conditions that did not protect against contamination.”
The safety alert said more than 1,100 dead rodents were found after the facility was fumigated in January 2022. Company records showed more than 2,300 rodents had been collected between March 29, 2021, and Sept. 17, 2021.
Inspectors had found numerous violations, including rodent waste pellets and a mouse carcass on a pallet containing cases of scalloped potatoes; gnawings, pellets, and a strong odor of rodent waste on a pallet containing cases of mixed nuts, and pellets on a pallet of flour where products had gnawings.
The FDA said consumers should discard numerous categories of products. The warning was necessary because rodents can pass many diseases onto humans, the complaint says.
Contaminated products included human and animal foods, cosmetics, medical devices and over-the-counter medications.
After the FDA’s investigation was announced, North Carolina-based Family Dollar issued a voluntary recall and temporarily closed its 85 Arkansas stores and 404 stores overall in order to remove roughly $34 million in potentially contaminated products.
“During this time, Family Dollar made significant profits, while knowingly exposing Arkansas consumers to potentially hazardous or contaminated products by allowing and failing to prevent long-lasting and massive rodent infestations and other unsanitary conditions at its West Memphis Distribution Center,” the complaint says.
“Likewise, many Family Dollar stores throughout the country have been forced to close due to rodent infestations in the recent past. Together, these facts demonstrate a much larger and troubling pattern of willful and intentional neglect and deceptive and unconscionable business practices by Family Dollar that compromise the health, safety, and well-being of Arkansas consumers.”