Debate over emotional damages continues in North Carolina

The debate over emotional damages for pets continues in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Appeals Court recently upheld the decision of the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which concluded that courts have not recognized intrinsic value as a measure for damages for the loss of an animal.

The plaintiffs, Nancy and Herbert Shera, filed for the wrongful death of their 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Laci.

Diagnosed with liver cancer in 2003, Laci was treated at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital (VSH) in Cary, North Carolina, where staff successfully removed the tumor. By late 2003, Laci’s cancer was determined to be in remission. In 2007, Laci was re-admitted to the VSH for multi-systemic organ disease and multiple life-threatening symptoms, including a severe form of pancreatitis, ascites, electrolyte derangements, and other serious veterinary issues. The canine exhibited symptoms of poor appetite, vomiting, and difficulty with urination.

VSH staff determined a nasoesophageal tube was necessary to assist with feeding. The VSH staff improperly placed the feeding tube into Laci’s trachea and lungs instead of the esophagus and stomach, resulting in cardiac arrest the following morning.

The plaintiffs, Nancy and Herbert Shera, sued the hospital for economic damages that they said represented the intrinsic value of Laci and the unique human-animal bond they shared with her. They also sought noneconomic damages including emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life, as well as reimbursement for the amounts paid for veterinary care.

In February 2012, the Appeals Court supported the Commission conclusion that the Sheras cannot recover damages for intrinsic value of a pet.

"The sentimental bond between a human and his or her pet companion can neither be quantified in monetary terms or compensated for under our current law," the court concluded.

The Commission awarded the Sheras $3,105.72 in damages. The award included reimbursement of the cost of treatment when the canine was admitted to VSH in 2007, as well as the replacement cost for a Jack Russell Terrier dog in the amount of $350.

The Appeals Court compared the case to damages that could be awarded in the wrongful death of a child, stating that law does not allow plaintiffs to recover awards greater than expenses for care, treatment and hospitalization incident to the injury resulting in death, rather than the cost of medical care expended over the child’s lifetime.

"North Carolina law has not yet recognized a lost investment valuation method in wrongful death cases, whether human child or pet animal," the court said.

The Sheras argued that the replacement value of a companion animal is not an adequate measure of the loss given the unique nature of the human-animal bond formed between pet owners and their pets. Rather, plaintiffs argue that because companion animals are "sentient beings," a "unique" and special kind of personal property, the measure of damages in a negligence case involving the loss of a companion animal should be the "actual" or "intrinsic" value of the animal.

The Appeals Court said the issue of the value of the human-animal bond is a Legislature issue, and is not something that an Appeals Court can continue to address.

"Certainly the numerous policy considerations presented by the issue raised in this case—how to value the loss of the human-animal bond between a pet owner and his or her companion animal—is more appropriately addressed to our Legislature," the court concluded. "This Court is an error-correcting court, not a law-making court."

Despite this, the court expressed empathy for the Sheras.

"We sincerely empathize with plaintiffs loss of their beloved pet Laci," the court said.
Read the full decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

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