Connecticut House Denies Woman Mauled by Chimp Right to Sue State

By Susan Haigh | April 30, 2014

The Connecticut House of Representatives has sided with a legislative committee that recommended a woman blinded and disfigured in a 2009 chimpanzee attack should not be allowed to sue the state for financial damages.

The 126-14 vote was not unexpected. It would have been unusual for the House to overrule the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee, which upheld last year’s decision by the Claims Commissioner’s office, which refused Charla Nash’s request for permission to sue the state.

After the committee’s vote earlier this month, Nash said in a written statement that the process wasn’t fair and she was heartbroken. She said at the time she was not giving up hope, but did not elaborate on any possible legal options.

The issue now moves to the Senate, which also is expected to side with the Claims Commissioner.

Nash contended state officials knew the 200-pound chimp, owned by Nash’s late friend and employer Sandra Herold, could be dangerous and was being kept without a permit before it went on a violent rampage on Herold’s property in Stamford. Nash lost her nose, lips, eyelids and hands in the attack and ultimately underwent a face transplant. The animal was shot to death by a police officer.

Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers feel “tremendous compassion” toward Nash, who last month made a personal plea before the committee, saying she wanted a chance to pay her medical bills and “have a chance to live a comfortable life.”

But while Fox credited Nash and her representatives with making an excellent presentation, he said committee members ultimately agreed the state of Connecticut didn’t owe a “personal duty” to protect Nash. While officials at the then-Department of Environmental Protection may have been aware of the chimpanzee, that alone did not make the state liable for Nash’s injuries, he said.

“While we all felt that this was a terrible tragedy, Miss Nash’s claim was one against the owner of the chimpanzee, which she did bring and which she did recover from the owner and the owner’s estate,” Fox said. Nash reached a $4 million settlement in 2012 with the estate of Herold, who died in 2010. But Nash’s attorneys have said that will only cover a small portion of her medical bills.

Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said she disagreed with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation and the Claims Commissioner’s ruling. Kupchick said she would be upset if the state didn’t seize a wild chimpanzee it knew about from her neighborhood and that animal ultimately harmed someone in her family.

“One of the most important aspects of government is to protect people,” she said. “And we failed to do that in this case.”

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