Stella Case No. 040, Originally Published: 5 March 2003
In February 2000, Sara McBurnett bumped into an SUV on a freeway onramp in San Jose, Calif. The driver of the SUV came to her window, and she rolled it down to apologize to him. But the enraged man reached into her car, grabbed her pet dog “Leo” from her lap, and threw the animal into freeway traffic where it was run over and killed as McBurnett watched in horror.
The man fled, and his cruel actions sparked international headlines — and a manhunt. Private donations poured in, totaling more than $100,000 in rewards to help catch the road rager. Andrew Burnett, 27, was eventually identified as the man in the SUV; he was convicted of felony animal cruelty and, in July 2001, given the maximum sentence: three years in prison.
Less than two years later, from his cell, Burnett has found a way to make his rage reach back out into the real world once again. He has filed a lawsuit claiming McBurnett slandered him in her statements to the police and the San Jose Mercury News newspaper, and claiming that the newspaper libeled him by “knowingly and maliciously” printing those “defamatory” remarks which, he claims, created the international furor over what he did that rainy night. That, he says in the suit he filed without an attorney, caused him “mental pain and anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, fright and shock, and mortification,” plus post-traumatic stress disorder and loss of wages. For all that, Burnett demands more than $1 million in compensation from McBurnett and the newspaper.
By abusing the civil courts, violent criminals no longer have to be satisfied with causing mental pain, anguish, fright, shock, and mortification while they’re loose on the streets, since once they’re imprisoned they have all the time in the world to do it all over again — by suing their victims for reporting their crime or some other made-up slight. Crime victims are fearful enough; convicted criminals must lose the right to sue their victims, or society will suffer when victims begin to think twice about reporting crimes to the authorities.
- “Leo the Dog’s Killer Claims Mental Anguish in Suit,” San Jose Mercury News, 28 February 2003
Andrew Burnett wasn’t done with his efforts in court: he appealed his sentence, claiming the trial court erred in admitting into evidence that he had beaten a stray dog to death in Puerto Rico in 1995 while serving in the Navy(!), “insufficient evidence,” and apparently several other technical points.
The judge rejected all of his arguments, using words like “absurd.” Ms McBurnett’s attorney, Marc Garcia, had commented at the time of his conviction: “Andrew Burnett will forever be known as the person who took a defenseless dog and threw it into traffic.” And so that stands today.
As for his lawsuit, I found mention after mention along the lines of “of course the judge threw the case out,” but never any mention of what judge, in what court, or when. But there are enough that I’m concluding “dismissed.”
Source: “California Court Rejects Appeal by Dog Killer”, Reuters, July 22, 2003
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
This case isn’t really about the dog, it’s about vicious, abject cruelty — to the dog, sure, but even more so to Mrs. McBurnett (and what a bizarre name coincidence: Burnett vs. McBurnett). During his criminal trial, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy rejected Burnett’s defense claim that the dog’s death was an “accident”(!). “To describe his story as unbelievable is being polite,” the judge said. “It is insulting to my intelligence. It is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who thinks. It is preposterous.” In addition, “The crime in this case involved a high degree of cruelty, viciousness and callousness,” Judge Murphy said. “It’s a case that needs to be dealt with harshly.” Hence the maximum sentence he could dole out: 3 years, which was greeted by cheers by observers in the gallery.
So then suing his victim (plus a deep pocket)? Just more of the same, and a clear demonstration of Burnett’s overall character.
There’s a terrific write-up by producer Ken Berry at KGO Radio in San Francisco about how he had the idea to get that large reward fund going. It’s in his blog, Covering the City.
A couple of readers have asked why — when I have the letters for each case from the newsletters from Way Back When — don’t I include the letters with the case in these reposts?
Two reasons: first, this is the way the original newsletter readers had to consume the cases and the discussion back in the day. Second (and more importantly), I want readers to have a chance to comment on each case without the influence of opinions expressed more than 15 years ago.
That said, I’ve swapped the position of my current thoughts on the case presented with the letters so that all of the featured case’s material is together, rather than interrupted by letters that don’t specifically pertain to the case. I’ll be working backward to make that change in all of the previous case posts.
Reader reaction to the American Trial Lawyers Association’s disingenuous dig at TSA is a must-read attachment to Case 039.
Within hours of that issue coming out, ATLA, apparently under a barrage of criticism from TSA readers by email and phone, updated their web site to remove that “bizarre” slap. They have not, however, changed any of the rest of the shrill arguments on their page, such as the claim that “things like the ‘Stella Award’ aren’t just cute or harmless jabs at trial lawyers and our legal system. They clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans’ confidence in our legal system and to benefit powerful corporate interests at the expense of average people harmed by corporate wrongdoing and indifference.”
Wow, I had no idea that I was part of a vast conspiracy to undermine the entire American legal system! I can’t believe I’ve been missing those planning meetings. Seriously, TSA is completely independent. My statement on the subject is here.
ATLA concludes on its page, “We’re ALL responsible for getting the truth out.” So very true; my question to ATLA, then, is When are you going to start?
Next, Case 039, about a bar owner who set up a trap after being burgled numerous times. The bar owner was cleared by the police, but the burglar’s family sued and won. My concluding question to the case was, “When someone takes it upon themselves to commit a felony, shouldn’t they be 100 percent liable for what happens next?”
Ray in California: “That sounds like it could condone a kind of vigilantism — ‘Warning, if you break in to this house, you will be severely tortured.’ If someone drops their wallet in the course of robbing my house, am I then free to max out their credit cards? Take down their address and rob *their* house? Someone who commits a felony should expect a response that is commensurate with the crime. An intentionally lethal response to burglary is not commensurate.”
First, it is not established that the bar owner intentionally set up a lethal response. Second, robbing a house is not only a crime, in the scenario you suggest it’s obviously intentional. And third, as stated in the case, state law in Illinois specifically allows lethal force to be used to defend property. You may consider that barbaric, and that’s fine — but it is the law there. The argument ends up being whether it’s reasonable for a lethal trap to be set, rather than the bar owner (for instance) sleeping in the bar with a shotgun at his side. The choice he made was, I agree, a poor one.
Quite a few attorneys wrote responses, but most were so long that I can’t even consider putting them here. But one defense lawyer was succinct:
Susan in Washington: “[The answer] depends on whether you consider the death penalty an appropriate sentence for burglary. If so, then we just part company. If not, do you really want to live in a society where individuals can inflict a harsher penalty for crimes (and without benefit of trial) than the system can? Do you want a society that has no sanctions against those citizens who choose to do so?”
While the source story was completely unclear on the intentions of the now-dead bar owner, I think it’s pretty unlikely that he meant to kill any intruders. Was he stupid to set up what turned out to be lethal? Sure. But if the “victim” had not chosen to commit a felony and break in, he wouldn’t have been subject to that stupid action. Where does the “fault” (between the bar owner and the burglar) cross?
The jury apparently thought that cross was at the half way point; it held each 50 percent at fault. Most readers thought somewhere else.
Navelle in Texas: “I would very much like to see a law passed to the effect that if a person is killed or injured while committing or attempting to commit a felony, neither he nor his family shall be entitled to any award for damages. Crime has traditionally been a high risk occupation, and it is not in society’s best interest to make it less so.”
Danny in West Virginia: “[The burglar] chose a high-risk occupation, and did not have the training, skills or aptitude for it. And he attempted to work while his brain was gently sizzling with recreational chemicals. And he was only 50% responsible in law!? Laws and common-sense are often far apart.”
Brian in Ohio: “When someone enters a building (especially a private home) illegally, I think they should have no legal expectation that they will emerge unhurt, or even alive. The idea that I should be legally required to take into account the welfare of illegal intruders within my own home is beyond absurd. In my house, the safety and security of MY family and MY property are my priorities; criminals can stay safe by staying OUT. It infuriates me that people even succeed in FILING such lawsuits, let alone winning them.”
- - -
No new cases are being published, so please don’t try to submit cases.
While there are no new cases coming, all of the previously published cases are returning to this site over time. You can subscribe to notifications as those classic cases are posted, scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays. Click here for a Stella Awards subscribe form.
Meanwhile, my flagship email publication This is True does continue to come out with new stories every week. It’s “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” like Stella, but uses weird-but-true news items as its vehicle for social commentary. It is the oldest entertainment newsletter online — weekly since 1994. Click here for a This is True subscribe form.