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Animal Law

Paralegal Seeks Damages from Ex-Partner for Death of Chihuahua

Posted Aug 17, 2009 4:02 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Under traditional legal standards, a pet owner entitled to damages over the death of an animal gets only what it would cost to buy another pet from a breeder.

But there has been pressure in recent years to recognize that a pet isn't just property and has a unique emotional value as a companion to the owner, and a Washington, D.C.-area paralegal is pursuing a cutting-edge case that could change the law in Virginia, the Washington Post reports.

Represented by Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe partner Lanny Davis, who served as White House counsel during the Bill Clinton administration, plaintiff Jeffrey Nanni, 42, is seeking damages from his former domestic partner, Maurice Kevin Smith, 52, over the death of their 12-pound Chihuahua, Buster, the newspaper recounts.

Smith denies killing the dog by hitting him with a board, as Nanni contends he "maliciously" did, but was found guilty of assault and battery and cruelty to animals concerning Buster's death, the newspaper recounts. Nanni says he still suffers emotional distress over the killing of his pet. A replacement chihuahua likely wouldn't cost much more than $1,200, but Nanni has filed a tort claim in Arlington Circuit Court, which has a $15,000 jurisdictional minimum.

His action against Smith asserts claims for assault and battery, unlawful killing of an animal and intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to the suit, Smith struck both Buster and Nanni with a board after the two men got into an argument one day in 2007 and Nanni picked the dog up.

Smith, who owns a construction business, tells the Post that he didn't kill the dog and describes the suit as an attempt to "extort" money from him. However, he says he agrees that "animals should be seen as more than just typical common property." Like Nanni, he describes the six dogs that the two men had in their home as family members who were like children to them. He is representing himself in the case.

In 2006, the newspaper notes, the Virginia Supreme Court held that a pet owner couldn't collect damages for emotional distress after a pet who was a passenger in her car was injured after the vehicle was rear-ended by a bus. In a footnote, however, the court said that some states allow such damages when an animal is intentionally killed.

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