A Connecticut woman disfigured by a friend’s pet chimpanzee in 2009 was denied permission Friday to sue the state for $150 million on her claim that officials knew the animal was dangerous but didn’t do anything about it.
The state claims commissioner released a five-page decision approving the state’s motion to dismiss Charla 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 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.
Messages seeking comment were left Friday with Nash’s relatives and her lawyer. They can appeal the decision by Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. to the legislature.
Nash’s lawyer, Charles Willinger, has said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection should be held responsible for not seizing the animal before the attack, because it had been warned that the animal was dangerous.
State Attorney General George Jepsen said the state shouldn’t be held liable.
“While we have the utmost sympathy for Charla Nash, we agree with the claims commission that a regulatory statute does not provide a basis to sue the state,” Jepsen spokeswoman Jaclyn Falkowski said. “To decide otherwise would mean that the state simply could not afford to pass regulations intended to promote order and safety.”
Vance said in his decision: “At the time Ms. Nash was attacked, there was no statute that prohibited the private ownership of the chimpanzee nor was there any statutory language that would have created a duty to Ms. Nash.”
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 such as (Nash).”
State lawmakers did approve a ban on chimpanzees and other animals deemed dangerous a few months after Nash was mauled.
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.
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 escaped from Herold’s home and roamed downtown Stamford for hours in 2003 before being captured, according to Nash’s lawsuit against Herold.
Several 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.”
In October 2008, the biologist warned that the chimpanzee had reached maturity and “is very large and tremendously strong.” The biologist said, “I am concerned that if he feels threatened or if someone enters his territory, he could seriously hurt someone.”
The $4 million settlement with Herold’s estate covers a small fraction of Nash’s medical costs, according to Nash’s lawyers, who have said she requires care and supervision around the clock.
“I hope and pray that the commissioner will give me my day in court,” Nash had 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.”
Jepsen has acknowledged that the biologist had warned that the chimp was dangerous. But he 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.
Lawmakers review many appeals of claims commissioner decisions each year and uphold most of the commissioner’s rulings, said state Rep. Gerald Fox III, a Stamford Democrat who’s co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. But he said the legislature does overturn the commissioner on occasion.
But even if lawmakers voted 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.
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