NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) – A woman disfigured by a friend’s chimpanzee in 2009 is trying again to sue Connecticut for $150 million, saying the state had the authority and obligation to seize a dangerous animal.
The state claims commissioner dismissed Charla Nash’s attempt last month to get permission to sue, saying that when she was attacked, the law allowed private ownership of chimpanzees. The state generally is immune to lawsuits, unless allowed by the claims commissioner.
In an appeal of that decision to the legislature Wednesday, Nash’s attorneys say the law in place at the time of the attack actually prohibited the ownership of primates weighing more than 50 pounds without a permit.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection “had the unequivocal authority to seize an animal whose existence threatened public health and safety,” Nash’s attorneys wrote. Because the chimp was owned illegally, they added, the state was obligated to seize it.
“The DEEP, however, did nothing; it took absolutely no action, completely ignoring the danger that the primate posed to the citizens of the state of Connecticut,” Nash’s attorneys wrote.
“The Nash decision allows the DEEP to avoid the consequences of its negligence.”
Nash was blinded, lost both hands and underwent a face transplant after being mauled in Stamford. Nash reached a $4 million settlement last year with the estate of the chimp’s owner, Sandra Herold, who died in 2010.
Nash, now 59, had gone to Herold’s home on Feb. 16, 2009, 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.
Months before the attack, a state 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.” The biologist warned that the chimpanzee had reached maturity and “is very large and tremendously strong.”
State Attorney General George Jepsen has 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. State lawmakers did approve a ban on chimpanzees and other animals deemed dangerous a few months after Nash was mauled.
Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. concluded in his decision that no law at the time of the attack prevented Herold from owning the chimpanzee.
He added, “If there was a failure by the DEP to seize the animal … the duty owed was to the general public and does not create a statutory obligation to ensure the safety of a private individual.”
Nash’s attorneys say in their appeal that the ruling misinterpreted the law.
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 have said, a reluctance to authorize a potentially costly lawsuit in a state with financial woes.
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