Another Frontier In Gay Rights

The domestic partner of Diane Whipple, a woman killed last month in a California dog mauling, wants to sue the animal's owners for wrongful death.

But under current state law, she can't collect damages because the statute treats domestic partners differently than married couples.

So now, Sharon Smith of San Francisco plans to challenge the state law that limits such cases to legal heirs, such as spouses, children and parents.

"I was shocked to find out that I had no standing to sue," says Smith, in an interview with CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes. "This is my life partner, my best friend - we did everything together the last seven years."

Smith claims she was effectively married to Whipple for several years, though the two had not registered as domestic partners with San Francisco or the state.

Smith says she'd give any damages awarded in court to a foundation that she and Whipple's family are setting`up in Whipple's name.

Whipple had been`returning to her apartment when two mastiff-Canary Island dogs bolted from a nearby apartment and attacked her.

Authorities are pondering criminal charges against the couple that owned the dogs.

Last year, a majority of Californians voted for Proposition 22, which defines marriage in that state as being only between a man and a woman.

Some conservative groups which supported Proposition 22 believe the Smith-Whipple case is being used to push Gov. Gray Davis to support a bill which would expand the legal rights of same sex couples.

"I believe that is the overriding agenda," says Karen Holgate, of the Capitol Resource Institute, who calls the case a kind of "emotional blackmail on him (Gray) to try to persuade him to sign that law."

California's laws on same sex unions already provide for palimony suits and adoption of children by gay couples.

Jon Davidson, of the Lamda Legal Defense gay rights group, says that simply isn't enough.

"If this couple had been a man and a woman, who met and married a week later in a whirlwind romance, they would have more rights than a couple like this who are together for seven years," he argues.

If Smith wins her suit, she would become the first person in the country ever to be awarded anything on behalf of a gay partner.

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