NC appeals court weighs value of pet's life
Posted January 24, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — State officials say a dead pet is worth the cost of replacing it, but Herb and Nancy Shera are waging a court fight to prove that a pet's life is worth more than simply buying another animal.
The Sheras' 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Laci, died almost five years ago when veterinarians at North Carolina State University accidentally inserted a feeding tube in her trachea instead of her esophagus, drowning the dog over a seven-hour period.
N.C. State's College of Veterinary Medicine admitted negligence and has since changed its procedures to ensure similar incidents don't occur again. State regulators also reprimanded the veterinarians who oversaw Laci's care at the small-animal hospital on campus.
Compensating the Sheras for their loss, however, remains a sticking point. Under North Carolina law, pets are considered property, and the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which handles tort claims against the state, awarded the couple $350, which commissioners said was the cost of replacing Laci with another Jack Russell.
The Sheras appealed the ruling to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which heard the case Tuesday but isn't expected to issue a ruling for several months.
"Laci was just so unique. She was this special little joy in our life," Nancy Shera said.
She said the dog likely saved her husband's life when he experienced chest pain and Laci alerted her to the situation so she could call paramedics for help.
"People don't know what dogs sense. They have a unique ability to sense something, and I think they sense emotions," Herb Shera said.
Their attorney, Calley Gerber of Raleigh-based Gerber Animal Law Center, argued that the Sheras are entitled to more than $28,000 for Laci's death since that is what they invested in her treatment for cancer at the N.C. State small-animal hospital. Gerber also said the dog's unique character should be included when calculating its value.
"It's very difficult to determine what a dog is worth – or really any companion animal – in North Carolina," Gerber said. "Our position is that the standard is actual value to the owner, and there are certain things that can be included in that."
Assistant Attorney General Olga Vysotskaya, who argued the case for the state, said it's too difficult to put a dollar value on pets, and the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association contends that doing so would open a floodgate of lawsuits and eventually raise veterinary bills for all pet owners.
The Sheras said they are pursuing the case on principle and not the money. They want the state to recognize that pets have value to their owners.
"(If) Laci's horrific death could possibly help other animals and their owners, then I just had to do it," Nancy Shera said.
"(People say) a dog's a dog. No, a dog's not a dog when they're part of your family," Herb Shera said.