Loco Lawsuits: The woeful tale of Leo, the Bichon Frise

On February 11, 2000, Sara McBurnett was driving to the San Jose airport to pick up her husband. Their 19-pound Bichon Frise dog, Leo, slept on the front seat. A black SUV with Virginia license plates passed her on the right shoulder and cut in front of her into the lane to her left. McBurnett also needed to change to the left lane, but her bumper tapped the SUV when she did so.

The driver of the SUV got out and stormed back to McBurnett’s car. When she rolled down her window, he shouted, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Leo was now on McBurnett’s lap, and the man reached in, pulling him out of the car. He then threw Leo into lanes of traffic, where several vehicles hit him. When McBurnett retrieved Leo and put him back in the car, the SUV took off at high speed. Leo died on the way to an emergency veterinarian clinic.

A Bichon Frise (not Leo)

The story drew international attention, and a local radio station collected $120,000 in reward money to catch the SUV’s driver. Tips led police to arrest Andrew Burnett, charging him with a felony for cruelly killing an animal. During his June 2021 trial, his attorney said Leo bit Burnett’s hand and, because a tooth stuck in his hand when Burnett jerked back his hand, the dog was pulled through the window and fell to the ground.

It took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty. In sentencing Burnett to the maximum three-year sentence, the judge called Burnett a liar and his version of events “absolutely ridiculous” and “preposterous.” After the sentencing, McBurnett called Burnett a “pathological liar.”

In July 2003, an appeals court unanimously affirmed Burnett’s conviction, saying there was substantial evidence that he caused “the cruel death of Leo.” Burnett also argued he wasn’t responsible because Leo supposedly ran back across the road before being hit by a white van. The court called the contention “absurd.” He also complained

Evidently having plenty of time on his hands in prison, in February 2003, Burnett filed a lawsuit over Leo’s death – against McBurnett and the San Jose Mercury News.

Representing himself, Burnett claimed his spine and neck were injured when McBurnett’s car tapped his and that she tried to hide the extent of damage to her vehicle to downplay him being injured. He also claimed McBurnett defamed him in the media and that the newspaper “knowingly and maliciously” printed libel about him. All of this, he alleged, not only caused him lost wages but “mental pain and anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, fright and shock, ad mortification.” He claimed damages of more than $1 million. Burnett asked to proceed in forma pauperis. The court denied the request and the lawsuit evidently proceeded no further.

These weren’t Burnett’s only experiences with the judicial system. Within months of his conviction for killing Leo, Burnett pled no contest to providing false documents to a traffic court to avoid paying speeding tickets and was convicted of stealing equipment from and destroying a van he used while working for Pacific Bell. In 2015, he requested reducing all of his convictions to misdemeanors. The courts rejected the request.

The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.

Mark Twain (1899)

Comments are closed.