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Sharon Smith, the partner of the San Francisco woman mauled to death in a Pacific Heights apartment building six weeks ago, has filed a wrongful death suit that should test both California law and the lawyers who cared for her lover’s killer. The case prompted a committee of the California Assembly on Tuesday to approve, 8-1, a bill that would allow domestic partners to recover damages from such suits, according to Associated Press reports. “This death did not need to happen,” Smith said during a City Hall press conference Monday, held in a room borrowed from San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno. “I want to make sure the persons responsible are held accountable.” Smith said any proceeds from the suit will be donated to a foundation established in Diane Whipple’s memory. Whipple was killed Jan. 26 when she was attacked by one, if not both, 120-pound Presa Canario dogs cared for by her neighbors. Named in the suit are attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, whose statements and alleged actions have turned the mauling into one of the strangest cases in San Francisco history. No criminal charges have yet been announced, but a grand jury is hearing testimony and could announce an indictment shortly. Also named is Rudolph Koppl, owner of the apartment building where the attack occurred. While not offering specifics, Smith’s lawyer, Michael Cardoza, said he has reason to believe that complaints about the dogs had previously been lodged with the landlord and that he should have known they were dangerous. “Sharon Smith is asking nothing more or less than any spouse … would be entitled to,” Cardoza said. Cardoza continued past criticisms of Terence Hallinan by saying the district attorney is being overly deliberate in bringing charges. Cardoza stressed that he believed the appropriate charge was second-degree murder. “It’s just not correct that we’re not moving expeditiously,” DA spokesman Fred Gardner said. Both prosecutors assigned to the case and even Hallinan himself came in over the weekend to review evidence seized from the dog’s original owner, a state prison inmate and Aryan Brotherhood member adopted by Noel and Knoller. California state law does not allow surviving domestic partners to sue for wrongful death. Less than two months before Whipple’s death, however, Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill to change the law. Smith testified Tuesday in Sacramento on behalf of the bill, AB 25. She was joined by several others, including Laurie Simonson, a board member of the Bar Association of San Francisco. “Unfortunately, it is a tragedy that has brought to light the issue,” Simonson said, adding that many were shocked to learn that despite statewide domestic partner registrations, partners had no standing in wrongful death lawsuits. “Legally, she’s a stranger.” While several cases over the past two decades have held that unmarried heterosexual survivors do not have standing to sue for wrongful death in civil court, this case is expected to be one of the first, if not the only, to challenge prohibitions against same-sex partners bringing similar suits. Both Kathryn Kendall, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and solo Robert Lazo, who filed the suit along with Cardoza, said the arguments in San Francisco Superior Court will take two tacks. The first will be to try to convince a judge to accept Whipple as Smith’s spouse under California’s wrongful death statute, arguing that failure of similar suits by heterosexual survivors is irrelevant because California law does not permit Whipple and Smith to legally marry. “We will refer to all the indicia of their relationship,” Lazo said. According to the suit, Whipple and Smith were married in a private ceremony. Whipple also left much of her estate to Smith. The second argument would attempt to convince the judge that state laws barring same-sex suits are unconstitutional. “We will raise constitutional arguments,” Kendall said. Regardless, Lazo said the suit will help push AB 25 through the legislative process. “I think this case will be important to the legislation,” Lazo said. Because she is named in the will, Cardoza said Smith has solid standing to bring a case in probate court. A reporter who had spoken to Noel prior to Monday’s press conference said Noel questioned the legitimacy of the will and disputed that Smith had standing to sue him, claiming he did not own the dog. Smith’s attorneys said that raises the possibility that Noel and Knoller could file a cross-complaint against their adopted son, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, who purchased the dogs from his cell at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Noel filed a $100 million complaint for violations of privacy against the California Department of Corrections, but sent it to the wrong state agency. He has not, according to the CDC, corrected the error and did not return a phone call seeking comment. Associated Press reports contributed to this story.

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