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

If Jeffrey Nanni, pictured with his dogs, is awarded emotional damages in his suit against his former domestic partner for the death of a dog, it would be a first in the Virginia court system.
If Jeffrey Nanni, pictured with his dogs, is awarded emotional damages in his suit against his former domestic partner for the death of a dog, it would be a first in the Virginia court system. (By Janet Hitchen)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

How much is a pet worth to its owner?

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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.

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