Published June 14, 2013
HARTFORD, Conn. – A Connecticut woman disfigured by a friend's pet chimpanzee was denied permission Friday to sue the state for $150 million because at the time of the attack, the law allowed private ownership of the animals.
The state is immune to lawsuits unless they're allowed by state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr., who approved the state's motion to dismiss Charla Nash's claim.
Nash was blinded, lost both hands and underwent a face transplant after being mauled in Stamford in 2009. She reached a $4 million settlement last year with the estate of chimp owner Sandra Herold, who died in 2010.
Her lawyer said the state should be held responsible for not seizing the animal before the attack, because it was warned the animal was dangerous. State Attorney General George Jepsen said the state shouldn't be held liable for the mauling.
Vance said in his decision that at the time of the attack, state law did not prohibit the private ownership of chimpanzees and did not require the state to seize an animal that was privately owned and not banned by the state. Vance noted that the state banned the ownership of chimpanzees after the attack.
"The State of Connecticut, were it a private person, would generally not have any duty to control the conduct of (a) third party absent some special relationship," Vance wrote.
Nash, 59, had gone to Herold's home on the day of the attack to help lure her friend's 200-pound chimpanzee, Travis, back inside. But the chimp went berserk and ripped off Nash's nose, lips, eyelids and hands before being shot to death by a police officer. Nash now lives in a nursing home outside Boston.
Travis had starred in TV commercials for Old Navy and Coca-Cola when he was younger and made an appearance on "The Maury Povich Show." The chimpanzee was the constant companion of the widowed Herold and was fed steak, lobster and ice cream. The chimp could eat at the table, drink wine from a stemmed glass, use the toilet, and bathe and dress itself.
Travis had previously bitten another woman's hand and tried to drag her into a car in 1996, bit a man's thumb two years later and roamed downtown Stamford for hours in 2003 before being captured after escaping from Herold's home, according to Nash's lawsuit against Herold.
The $4 million settlement covers a small fraction of Nash's medical costs, according to her lawyers, who have said she requires care and supervision around the clock. She is facing another surgery for hand transplants and will need to be on antibiotics for the rest of her life.
Nash holds the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection responsible for not seizing the animal before the attack despite a state biologist's warning it was dangerous.
"I hope and pray that the commissioner will give me my day in court," Nash told reporters following a hearing last year before Vance. "And I also pray that I hope this never happens to anyone else again. It is not nice."
State Attorney General George Jepsen has said the state should not be held liable for the mauling. He has acknowledged that a state biologist had warned that the chimp was "an accident waiting to happen" before the attack. But Jepsen said state law on the issue was ambiguous and difficult to enforce, and there was no guarantee a court hearing would have led to a seizure order.