On January 26, 2001, Diane Alexis Whipple was killed by two dogs in the hallway of her apartment building in San Francisco where she lived with her life partner, Sharon Smith. The dogs belonged to Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel and were previously trained as fighting dogs by Aryan Brother gang members in California.
NCLR, along with co-counsel Michael Cardoza and Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP, represented Ms. Smith in a wrongful death case against Knoller, Noel, and the apartment owners.
The defendants argued that the Court should dismiss the case on the ground that Ms. Smith could not pursue a wrongful death claim since the couple was unmarried. In a historic ruling in 2001, San Francisco Superior Court Judge A. James Robertson II held that Ms. Smith was a “surviving spouse” and that any other reading of the law “has no place in our system of government” and would “unduly punish Ms. Smith for her sexual orientation.” The order was the first in the country to recognize that same-sex partners have a right to sue for wrongful death even without any kind of formal recognition for their relationships.