Gay rights group Lambda Legal filed its opening brief last week in the Court of Appeals of Virginia on behalf of a 48-year-old Keysville man improperly denied death benefits stemming from an accident that ultimately led to the death of his same-sex partner in 2005.

“This case is about making sure that the rules are applied fairly to everyone,” Greg Nevins, senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office, said.

“Virginia law broadly gives anyone dependent on a deceased worker the right to claim benefits; there is no ‘same-sex partner exception’ to the rule.”

Lambda Legal is appealing a decision issued in April of this year by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that found Thomas Edwin Dunnavant does not qualify for death benefits after the death of his partner Phillip Pettus.

The two originally met in 1980, but lived together as a couple from 1997 until Pettus’ death on Christmas Eve of 2004.

Pettus’s death was a result of complications of a back injury he suffered in 2001 working as a mechanic.

Although evidence showed that Dunnavant is disabled-he has fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and type two diabetes-and depended completely on Pettus for almost all of his living expenses, the Commission ruled that he and Pettus were in a “financially interdependent relationship,” and that because he wasn’t Pettus’ spouse, refused to consider him a dependent.

Lambda Legal’s brief states: “The Commission dismissively rejected the characterisation of them as ‘life partners,’ and labelled them as mere ‘housemates.’

“The Commission also sought to deny Dunnavant benefits based on the review panel’s conclusion that no “family relationship” existed between Pettus and Dunnavant, even though there is no requirement in the (workers compensation) statute that there be a family relationship between a worker and someone dependant on that worker.”

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