The Court of Appeals today released an opinion in Shera v. N.C. State Univ. Veterinary Teaching Hosp. upholding a determination by the Full Commission that the owners of a pet dog that was negligently killed by defendants could recover only damages based on the replacement value of the companion animal, rather than the intrinsic value. While the Court’s opinion is rather straightforward in its analysis and application of the law, it serves as a good example and reminder of the role of the Court of Appeals in North Carolina jurisprudence.

Shera involved a factual scenario in which plaintiffs brought their 12 year-old pet Jack Russell Terrier, Laci, to a veterinary hospital where it was determined that she was suffering from multi-systemic organ disease. The hospital determined that Laci required a feeding tube, but hospital staff erroneously placed the tube in Laci’s lungs instead of her stomach. The following morning, Laci died due to the improper placement of the feeding tube.

The veterinary hospital admitted negligence and the case was tried before the North Carolina Industrial Commission solely on the issue of damages. Plaintiffs, who had owned Laci since she was five weeks old, sought economic damages representing the “intrinsic value of Laci,” and “the intrinsic value of the unique human-animal bond.” In addition to damages relating to certain expenses incurred by plaintiffs, the Full Commission awarded plaintiffs “the market value of Laci represented by the replacement cost of a Jack Russell Terrier dog in the amount of $350.” The Commission declined to expand the “intrinsic value category of damages by applying it to the loss of a pet animal,” determining that North Carolina law treats pet animals as personal property and therefore requires the use of the difference in market value or replacement value as the measure of damages for loss of a pet due to a defendant’s negligence.

Plaintiffs appealed and challenged the Full Commission’s conclusion of law declining to use an “intrinsic valuation method” to compensate plaintiffs for Laci’s death. Plaintiffs argued that in the case of a negligently destroyed companion animal, the measure of damages should be that set forth in North Carolina’s Civil Pattern Jury Instruction 810.66, which instructs that actual or intrinsic value should be used to determine damages “where damages measured by market value would not adequately compensate the plaintiff and repair or replacement would be impossible.” Plaintiffs contended that the uncontroverted evidence showed the “irreplaceable uniqueness” of Laci, thus necessitating the application of the intrinsic value measure of damages.

The Court of Appeals recognized the emotional and sentimental connection that plaintiffs had formed with their pet of twelve years, quoting testimony from plaintiffs that clearly showed that Laci was like a child to plaintiffs and that they were devastated by her loss. The Court noted, however, that the testimony revealed no unique tasks or functions that Laci performed for plaintiffs that could not be performed by another dog and that it was only plaintiffs’ emotional bond with the deceased animal that was irreplaceable. As that emotional bond is not something recognized as compensable under North Carolina law, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument and affirmed the Full Commission’s decision not to apply an intrinsic measure of damages and award plaintiffs the market value replacement cost of $350.

The Court ended its opinion with a poignant explanation of its role within the North Carolina judicial system:

We sincerely empathize with plaintiffs’ loss of their beloved pet Laci. Unfortunately for plaintiffs, however, this Court is not in the position to expand the law. Rather, such considerations must be presented to our Supreme Court or our Legislature, who have the power to rectify any inequities in both the labeling of companion animals as mere property and the current market valuation of companion animals in negligence cases. 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. This Court is an error-correcting court, not a law-making court. Here, as stated previously, the Commission did not err in its reasoning or its conclusions of law as to the proper measure of damages for plaintiffs’ pet dog under our current negligence laws. Accordingly, we must affirm the Commission’s opinion and award.

This is an important reminder for all appellate practitioners in North Carolina. No matter how well-founded or impassioned an argument to change or expand the law of the state may be, you should not expect the Court of Appeals to go outside the boundaries of its responsibilities to effectuate that change or expansion by going against well-established law and precedent. If an affirmative change in the law is what you are seeking, you should be prepared to bring your case to the North Carolina Supreme Court or the General Assembly.

Note: This case was brought under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-291 et seq. (2003), which was enacted in order to enlarge the rights and remedies of a person who is injured by the negligence of a State employee who was acting within the course of his employment. Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-291(a), the North Carolina Industrial Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to hear claims falling under the Act.