Chimp-Attack Victim Seeks to Sue State of Connecticut

November 6, 2009

The family of a Connecticut woman mauled and blinded by a chimpanzee sought Wednesday to sue the state for $150 million, saying officials failed to prevent the attack.

Attorneys for Charla Nash’s family filed a notice Wednesday with the state Office of Claims Commissioner asking for permission to sue.

The 200-pound chimpanzee named Travis went berserk in February when his owner, Sandra Herold, asked Nash to help lure him back into her house in Stamford.

The animal ripped off Nash’s hands, nose, lips and eyelids; she remains in stable condition at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

A Department of Environmental Protection biologist warned state officials before the attack that Travis could seriously hurt someone if he felt threatened, noting that he was large and strong.

“We believe the evidence will show that the state, acting through the Department of Environmental Protection, failed to adequately address a serious public safety issue that resulted in tragic consequences for our client,” said Matt Newman, attorney for Nash’s family.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday that his office is reviewing the claim. He said that he is sympathetic over the “horrific tragedy” but that the planned lawsuit “seems unprecedented in size.”

Dennis Schain, Environmental Protection spokesman, said his agency had not received any paperwork yet but would cooperate with the claims commissioner and attorney general.

The claim comes at a difficult time for Connecticut, where the two-year, $37.6 billion budget is already $624 million in deficit.

“There is a potential for a very significant exposure to the state, depending on how the facts are developed in the claims process,” said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford.

Nash’s family earlier filed a $50 million lawsuit against Herold, saying she was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control “a wild animal with violent propensities.”

Herold’s attorney, who declined to comment on the new claim, has called the attack work-related and said her family’s case should be treated like a workers’ compensation claim. The strategy, if successful, would limit potential damages in the case and insulate the chimp owner from personal liability.

The animal, which was shot and killed by police, had also escaped in 2003 from his owner’s car and led police on a chase for hours in downtown Stamford. No one was injured.

Records obtained by The Associated Press through a state open-records request show the state began receiving warnings immediately after that event.

“The DEP had information for at least five years that would have permitted that agency to have removed Travis from its residence,” Nash’s attorneys wrote in the new papers, noting the agency did prosecute the owner of a much smaller primate. “If the DEP had acted prudently, Charla Nash would not have been devastatingly injured.”

Environmental protection officials have said that over the 13 years Travis was with Herold, the agency received only a few inquiries about Travis among thousands in general about possession of wild animals.

They said the memo from the biologist underscored the need for a clear, new law that would forbid ownership of potentially dangerous animals as pets and impose stiff penalties for those possessing them, and they blamed the failure to act on a communications problem and a lack of expertise in exotic animals at the agency.

Nash’s family has a year from the date of the attack to file a claim with the claims commissioner office. The commissioner can recommend an award to the legislature or grant authorization to sue the state in court.

If the commissioner denies the request to seek damages from the state, the family could appeal to the legislature. Without its consent, the state cannot be held liable in a legal action for any damage or injury it may cause.

Police fatally shot the 14-year-old chimp when he tried to attack an officer responding to the assault on Nash on Feb. 16. Test results showed that Travis had the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in his system, but investigators don’t know whether the drug played a role.

AP-ES-11-04-09 1808EST

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