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Court to Hear Va. Suit Seeking Damages in Chihuahua's Death

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

How much is a pet worth to its owner?

An animal-rights case headed to court next week in Arlington County could answer that question in one dispute -- and redefine Virginia property law in the process.

Jeffrey Nanni has sued his former domestic partner, Maurice Kevin Smith, alleging that Smith maliciously killed their 12-pound Chihuahua, Buster, two years ago by hitting him with a wooden board. Smith has denied killing Buster but was found guilty of assault and battery and cruelty to animals in connection with the incident.

Since Buster's death, the suit says, Nanni, 42, a paralegal, "continues to suffer severe emotional distress" and should be compensated for it. The suit asks for monetary damages for Buster's worth to Nanni, "which includes Buster's unique value . . . as a companion animal."

If he wins, it would be a first in Virginia. State law says that dogs and cats are considered personal property and that owners are "entitled to recover the value" of the pet if the pet is injured or killed. In the past, that has been interpreted to mean the replacement value.

Nanni's attorney, Lanny Davis, former White House counsel for President Bill Clinton, hopes to move the boundaries of Virginia law in asking a jury to award money for "Buster's actual value" to Nanni, saying pets have "irreplaceable relationships" with their owners.

He likened the case to that of a family heirloom, which has worth well beyond its street value.

"If you ask somebody if their animal companion is worth only the cost of the animal, people will look at you like you're crazy," said Davis, a partner with the firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who has taken the case pro bono.

In the Washington region, there are no specific laws that allow pet owners to collect emotional damages in such cases. In Maryland, the law says that in the case of the death of a pet, the owner is due "fair market value of the pet before death." An animal welfare bill was proposed in the District with a provision that would have allowed pet owners to sue for emotional damages if the pets were killed or injured, but that provision was taken out before the bill passed last year.

Smith, 52, has said it was Nanni who killed Buster. But the night Buster was killed, Smith was arrested. He later stipulated to the facts of the case and took a plea in Arlington General District Court in 2007. Smith served 10 days in jail and was on probation for a year after his plea.

Smith is representing himself in the civil case. A scheduling hearing is set for Monday.

Nanni's lawsuit, filed in Arlington Circuit Court in May, accuses Smith of assault and battery, unlawful killing of a dog and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit asks for no less than $15,000 in damages, the minimum amount that will ensure that the case will be heard in Arlington Circuit Court, lawyers said. An Internet search shows Chihuahua puppies sell for an average of about $250 to $1,200.

Davis said he will let a jury decide how much, if anything, Nanni should be compensated for Buster's death.

The case was brought to Davis through the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is trying to help Nanni and has worked with similar plaintiffs across the country.

"We are trying to increase value of their lives to make it more equitable for dog and cat owners who go through these kinds of losses," said Joyce Tischler, general counsel for the group.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled on an Arlington County case in 2006, saying a woman whose car was rear-ended by a bus could not collect damages for emotional or mental anguish for injuries sustained by her dog in the accident. A footnote in the ruling, however, noted that some states permit recovery of damages for emotional distress in cases of animals injured or killed by intentional acts.

According to Nanni's suit, the couple had lived together for 12 years in Arlington and owned six dogs.

On July 9, 2007, they got into a fight. Nanni picked Buster up in his arms and Smith struck Nanni and Buster repeatedly with a wooden board, the suit says. Buster died while being rushed to an emergency room by Nanni, it alleges. Nanni suffered cuts and bruises, according to the suit.

Nanni returned to the house, did not see Smith and called police and the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which took Buster's body for an autopsy. Smith returned to the house and was arrested.

The autopsy found that Buster died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Smith said in an interview that he'll be able to prove he did not kill the dog and said the suit is an attempt to "extort" money from him. He contends that it was Nanni who caused the dog's head to be hit by the board.

Buster had lived with the couple since 2005, when Nanni rescued him, which for him was "akin to adopting a child," the suit says. Nanni said he used to make homemade dog food for Buster and hand-feed him at the dinner table each night.

It says Nanni became depressed and "continues to suffer severe emotional distress from the malicious killing of Buster and the loss of his companionship." He began psychological counseling but did not have the money to continue it, it says.

"I still can't tell you the pain I feel every day and every night I think about him," Nanni said in an interview. "He died in my arms."

When Smith and Nanni parted ways, Nanni took the dogs and Smith kept his house in Arlington. Nanni now lives on a farm in Middleburg, where he tends to animals.

Smith, who owns a construction business, and Nanni have a bitter relationship, but they seem to agree on one critical point:

"Animals should be seen as more than just typical common property," Smith said. "These dogs were my children, my family."

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