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Dog Victim's Partner Seeks Right to Sue

Capitol: She lobbies in Sacramento for a measure giving same-sex companions the same right as spouses to file wrongful death lawsuits.

March 14, 2001|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The partner of Diane Whipple, the lacrosse coach who was mauled to death in a sensational San Francisco dog attack, lent support Tuesday to legislation that would give same-sex companions the same right as spouses to sue those they hold responsible for a partner's death.

Sharon Smith, 35, a regional vice president at Charles Schwab, stood before an array of television cameras and told the Assembly Judiciary Committee that she never would have imagined herself an activist.

But after learning that she had no right to sue on behalf of Whipple, her partner of seven years, Smith said she grew determined that no other gays should have to endure her experience.

"When I was told that current California law did not recognize my right to hold those responsible for Diane's death accountable," Smith told lawmakers, "I couldn't believe it. To say that it added insult to injury is a gross understatement.

"Diane and I planned to spend the rest of our lives together," she added. "We would have been legally married if we could have been."

The committee approved the bill, AB 25, by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), with one dissenting vote, from Republican Rod Pacheco of Walnut. But the progress of the legislation, which would expand domestic partners' rights in 11 categories, did not come without controversy.

Supporters of Proposition 22, the ballot initiative voters approved last year that defined marriage as a heterosexual-only bond in California, called it an attempt to circumvent voters' will.

"This bill is, unfortunately, an end run around marriage," said Randy Thomason, executive director of Campaign for California Families. "It is unconscionable to give 11 marriage rights to persons who are not married."

One opponent, Scott Lively of the Pro-Family Law Center in Citrus Heights, told lawmakers that they should weigh their actions carefully because of the "historical consequences in Germany of having embraced homosexuality"--a suggestion that the sexual freedom of prewar Germany had led to Nazism. Lively handed legislators a copy of his book "The Pink Swastika."

Lawmakers appeared shocked.

"I think it's imperative to anyone watching this: It's about hatred," Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco) said of the opposition arguments.

Whipple, a 33-year-old coach at St. Mary's College, was killed at her apartment door in January by Bane, a 120-pound dog kept by her neighbors, attorneys Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Another dog, Hera, also participated in the attack.

Prosecutors are weighing whether to charge Noel and Knoller with crimes for the mauling. Smith filed a wrongful death suit Monday, despite the legal limitations.

The dog owners have blamed the victim, saying that Whipple provoked Bane. They have also suggested in writing that she might have been using steroids that set off their dog, an accusation that has outraged gay and lesbian groups.

Migden, who helped pass a law two years ago that allows gay and lesbian couples to register as domestic partners in California, introduced the new bill before the dog attack. The bill is not retroactive.

In addition to allowing partners in same-sex couples to file wrongful death suits, the bill would permit them to make medical decisions on behalf of sick partners and inherit their estates without wills. Because it also applies to heterosexual couples, it has garnered support from groups such as the Congress for California Seniors. Migden said she has spoken to Gov. Gray Davis, who last year vetoed a similar Migden bill, and expects him to sign her bill this year.

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