NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Blocked in her bid to sue the state for $150 million, the woman mauled and disfigured by a chimpanzee in 2009 faces an uphill battle as she appeals to the legislature.
Charla Nash, who was blinded, lost both hands and underwent a face transplant, argues that officials knew the chimp was dangerous but didn't do anything about it.
While Nash has lawmakers' sympathies, they deny most appeals of decisions by the state's claims commissioner. Nash would also have to overcome a ban on laws that benefit one person and, experts say, a reluctance to authorize a potentially costly lawsuit in a state with financial woes.
"I would say there's a pretty strong burden of proof on a party that's seeking to challenge the claims commissioner's determination," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven. "There's a fairly high threshold in order to hold the state accountable."
The commissioner on June 14 approved the state's motion to dismiss Nash's claim, saying the law at the time allowed private ownership of chimpanzees and didn't require officials to seize legal animals. The state generally is immune to lawsuits, unless allowed by the claims commissioner.
Nash's lawyer, Charles Willinger Jr., said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection should be held responsible for not seizing the chimpanzee before the attack. Several months before the attack, a biologist warned state officials in a memo that the chimpanzee could seriously hurt someone if it felt threatened, saying "it is an accident waiting to happen."
That letter helps Nash's case, said state Rep. Arthur O'Neill, a Southbury Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee that will hear her appeal.
"I think there are some interesting questions about what the role of the Department of Environmental Protection was and the degree to which they have any kind of responsibility for people who have these relatively exotic animals," O'Neill said. "Clearly there are issues. It's not like she has no claim on either our sympathies or on the potential for a sense of responsibility by the state towards her."
But O'Neill said sympathy alone would not be enough for Nash to prevail. He recalled a losing appeal by a man who won $5.8 million in the lottery but missed the deadline to collect it by days in 1996.
O'Neill said lawmakers also could approve a financial award for Nash, but he noted her claim is for $150 million. "I really don't know that the legislature is going to award that kind of money," he said.
Nash reached a $4 million settlement last year with the estate of the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold, who died in 2010.
Nash had gone to Herold's home on Feb. 16, 2009, to help lure her friend's 200-pound chimpanzee, named 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, 59, now lives in a nursing home outside Boston and requires extensive 24-hour care.
Even if lawmakers vote to allow Nash to sue, there would be legal problems with that decision, said New Haven lawyer Joel Faxon, who is not involved in Nash's case. He said the legislature would have to pass a special act pertaining to one person and that kind of law has been deemed unconstitutional. Many cases rejected by the claims commissioner but later approved by lawmakers have been dismissed by courts because of that issue, he said.
Nash would need to show that granting her the right to sue would serve a larger public purpose, such as protecting others endangered, as well, O'Neill said.
"As a practical matter, if she's going to come to the legislature asking us to pass a law giving her permission to sue the state, she needs to show there is more to it than just her own personal benefit," O'Neill said.