Herb Shera was a Navy sailor on the U.S.S. Murray, which uncovered Soviet submarines and turned them back during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when the nations were on the verge of nuclear war. Yet when Shera testified at a trial earlier this week, he crumpled and cried as he spoke of his dog, Laci, who suffocated after N.C. State veterinarians mistakenly placed a feeding tube in her trachea instead of her esophagus.
"I have had seven dogs, and she was the jewel," Shera stammered. "She was the joy of our life."
N.C. State veterinarians might agree. The school's teaching hospital website discusses the value of pets to their owners—and the grief the owners endure when their loved ones die:
"For many people, animals are the primary sources of emotional and social support and can be described as children, best friends, confidantes, partners and companions. They become members of our family and can provide a sense of constant support through various changes in our lives. Pets enhance and stabilize our lives with constant unconditional love and devotion. This special human-animal relationship is what makes the death of a pet one of the most significant losses we experience in our lives."
Yet during the trial, the state's attorneys argued that Laci is really little more than property; consequently, the Sheras are owed only the price a Jack Russell terrier could fetch in the local classifieds. But the Sheras are seeking to be reimbursed the $28,243 they spent on Laci's medical care since 2003, including the veterinary procedure that killed her.
"How do you put a price on your child?" Shera asked rhetorically from the witness stand.
That legal question played out in Durham before the Industrial Commission, which hears tort cases against the state. And the decision, expected later this fall, could set a precedent for animal law in North Carolina.
"In North Carolina, there isn't a case that's decided this question," Duke Law Professor Donald Beskind told the Indy. "This is really a clean slate, in a sense, on which the North Carolina courts can write."
On Monday morning, Calley Gerber, a Raleigh attorney who specializes in animal law, carted a box brimming with three-ring binders. She plopped the first one on the plaintiff's table in the trial room.
The first page was a laminated picture of Laci, who died in 2007 at age 12 while being treated for liver cancer at the N.C. State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Olga Vysotskaya, the attorney representing the state, offered condolences to the Sheras and talked to them about their ride in from Wilmington. Long and rainy, they said.
Nancy Shera nervously tapped her feet. She was eager to finally tell her story, she said somberly.
"It's been very, very emotional," she said. "She was an absolute member of our family. I'm absolutely a dog lover, but Laci was rare. I hope to win for justice, for my Laci and what she endured and hopefully to change the law."
During an hour-long delay, Gerber walked back to Nancy and Herb Shera, who were seated on the single wooden bench along the back wall of the wood-paneled courtroom, and handed Nancy Shera a charm.
On one side of the charm, a dog is adorned with wings. On the other is an engraving: "Energy does not die. I have only changed forms. I will always be with you."
Gerber received the charm from a friend when Gerber's dog died, and she carries it with her always.
When the trial finally convened, Assistant State Attorney General Vysotskaya admitted the N.C. State veterinarians were liable. They misplaced a feeding tube, drowning Laci's lungs with fluid for seven hours before she died. At issue, though, are the damages. What's fair?
Although the Sheras aren't suing for damages related to pain and suffering, Laci was priceless to them. They took her on every family vacation. They spent thousands of dollars on chemotherapy and travel expenses from Wilmington to N.C. State, where they went every three months for ultrasound checkups after the liver cancer went into remission. The Sheras stayed in a hotel every time and visited and made phone calls as often as the hospital would allow.
"I don't think you can put a price on Laci, she was that invaluable to us," Nancy Shera said. "She was everything to us."
The state argues, though, that pets are treated as property under the law and that the Sheras are entitled to fair market value or replacement costs. And they had The News & Observer's classifieds to prove just how much a new Jack Russell terrier costs: $350. Vysotskaya also offered to pay the $155 cremation cost.
When Nancy Shera took the stand, her face turned red. She recounted about the day they bought Laci (Aug. 7, 1994), how much they paid ($100), her birthday (July 4, 1994), her traits (strong, intuitive, gentle, loving), and she called her "absolutely my best friend" and "my little girl."
She remembered April 6, 2007, the day a voice on the phone told her that Laci had died.
"We were only 10 minutes away. I never left her," Shera said, wincing tearfully. "I never got a chance to hold my Laci. I was stunned, shocked, absolutely."
Industrial Commissioner George T. Glenn II, whose job is similar to that of a judge, asked if she needed a break.
"I'm sorry, it's been a long three years," Nancy Shera responded. "It's been torture living with this."
Herb Shera recalled the comfort that Laci brought him as he coped with heart problems, always resting on his lap, easing his worries. "There was only one Laci," he said. "Somebody made a mistake, and she's now in a box."
Vysotskaya restated how sorry the veterinarians are for causing Laci's death and reiterated that they always admitted their mistake. Though the Sheras' testimony was heartfelt, she said, the plaintiffs are trying to expand the law too far.
"It is just impossible to put a dollar value on the loss of an animal," Vysotskaya said.
Gerber argued that there is no fair market value for a 12-year-old dog with a history of cancer and that the defendants "robbed" the Sheras of the investments made to prolong Laci's life.
"The money you can use to tell how much she was worth is the amount they had already spent," Gerber said.
The Sheras won't make money on the case, even if they win. They are doing it to make a point, Nancy Shera said, that pets are cherished family members and deserve to be treated as more than property under the law.
"We need to be more aware of the value that owners have for their precious family members," Nancy Shera said.
The N.C. Supreme Court agreed with the Sheras' perspective in 1936, when it decided that dogs have value, and it allowed people to sue in cases of death due to negligence. But the courts haven't commented on the issue since then, Duke Law Professor Beskind said.
Pets are treated the same way as cars, essentially, and owners are entitled to the amount a willing buyer would have paid a willing seller for the dead or destroyed property.
"Pets under the law in North Carolina and virtually every other state that I'm aware of are personal property," said Beskind. "You think of a pet as being something you own, and a pet has great sentimental or emotional value, but so do other things you own like the family Bible or a photo album or the mother's wedding dress ... The realities of how people feel about their pets do not come into play."
But Gerber said that North Carolina case law shows that personal property, for example, has intrinsic value—defined as its "reasonable value to its owner"—so pets should as well. In determining the actual value of the plaintiff's property, the case goes on, a jury or court may consider the uniqueness of the property, the opinion of the plaintiff as to its value. However, a jury or court cannot consider any "fanciful, irrational or purely emotional value" the property may have had.
Florida and Illinois allow the courts to weigh intrinsic value of the pet in cases. Oklahoma and Missouri have a category for loss of companionship, while seven other states allow damages for emotional distress.
Both sides are likely to appeal, Gerber said. She hopes that the case will reach the state Court of Appeals and set a precedent.
"Up until now, it's been, you can buy another dog," Gerber said. "We're trying to say there is no market value for a dog once it's an adult."
After three years, Herb Shera remains disconsolate over Laci's death.
"How do you explain when you've taken all that time and effort not to mention money and find out ... that supposedly one of the paramount veterinary organizations in the state messed up?"