In August, the N.C. Industrial Commission was confronted with a question: How much is a pet's life worth?
This week, Deputy Commissioner George T. Glenn II answered: Nothing.
"I'm fascinated by a ruling that says there's no value," says animal law attorney Calley Gerber of Raleigh. "If it was any other item of property, I don't think there'd be an industry allowed to charge you tens of thousands of dollars for something that wasn't worth anything. You couldn't do it for a car, you couldn't' do it for a condemned house, but they will for a beloved companion animal."
Gerber represents Herbert and Nancy Shera of Wilmington, whose cherished 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Laci, died while under N.C. State Veterinary Teaching Hospital care in 2007, due to admitted negligence by doctors treating her.
The Sheras are seeking compensatory damages valued at $28,243, which is how much they paid for Laci's medical care since 2003 when she developed liver cancer.
The state attorney's office argued that the Sheras were owed nothing for Laci's "intrinsic value," just $505—$350 for a new dog, based on prices listed in newspaper classifieds—and $155 in cremation costs.
Glenn awarded $2,755.72, the amount of the final veterinary bill.
The Sheras say they will appeal the ruling.
"I can't give up. I will never give up," Nancy Shera says. "We have to see this through."
Gerber has 15 days to file the appeal. She then has time to review the official court transcripts before ferreting out and challenging individual mistakes.
She can already list several, she says.
For instance, the ruling states that the surgery for Laci's liver cancer took place in Wilmington, where the Sheras live. However, the operation took place in Cary, at the former N.C. State vet school location.
"That's a 110-mile error," Herb Shera says. "That's a biggie, as far as I'm concerned, because I had to drive it back and forth."
The ruling also states that Laci was suffering from multiple life-threatening illnesses when the Sheras brought her to N.C. State. But it was a misplaced feeding tube, not a disease, that killed Laci.
The Sheras say no one told them about a life-threatening disease until after Laci died.
"It wasn't until she was deceased that they decided she was on death's doorstep," Gerber says.
The Sheras say that they brought Laci for treatment because she had trouble urinating but that she didn't begin to deteriorate until under N.C. State's care.
The initial appeal will be heard in the Industrial Commission. If it fails, the Sheras plan to pursue the case in the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Legal bills already far surpass the amount they are requesting in the suit, but the goal for the Sheras and Gerber is to establish a legal precedent that pets have intrinsic value.
Under current law, pets are treated as personal property, meaning owners are entitled to the amount a willing buyer would pay a willing seller for the animal or property in question.
Gerber argues that there's no market for adult dogs and that the intrinsic value to the owner should be applied.
"We intend to do it all," Herb says of the appeals. "Not because we particularly want to, but because it's necessary."
"Money was never the object anyway," Nancy Shera adds. "It was to make a statement and to change the law."