HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) — A woman
whose face and hands were ripped off by a friend's pet chimpanzee in
2009 came to the Connecticut State Capitol on Friday to ask permission
to sue the state for $150 million in damages.
Charla Nash, who has undergone a face transplant and many other
surgeries, including a failed double-hand transplant, spoke to the
Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, her head wrapped
with protective white gauze.
"My name is Charla Nash and I'm hoping you can make a decision based
on the fact that the state knew what was happening and failed to
protect me," said Nash, 60.
Her legal team has said that before the attack, the Connecticut
Department of Energy and Environment Protection (DEEP) had described
the illegally owned, 200-pound (90 kilogram) chimp as a serious
threat to public safety.
She asked lawmakers to pass legislation overruling a June decision
by state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. that denied her
request to waive Connecticut's sovereign immunity from lawsuits.
"I want the chance to pay my medical bills and live a comfortable
life. But I also want to make sure that what happened to me never
happens to anyone else ever again," said Nash, who wore a white hat
with ear flaps over the gauze protecting her still-healing head.
She lives in a Boston-area convalescent facility where she is highly
dependent on staff.
Nash was at the Stamford home of her friend and employer, Sandra
Herold, when Herold's pet chimp, Travis, attacked her, leaving her
blind and disfigured. The animal was shot dead at the scene by a
Stamford police officer.
Nash's lawyer, Charles Willinger of Bridgeport, insisted that his
client has the right to have her day in court.
"The facts you will shortly hear — and these are facts that will
shock you — demonstrate the failure and omission of a state agency
to properly and legally protect the public. What you will hear will
be upsetting and appalling," Willinger said.
Her legal team has argued that she has the right for a court to
decide whether to find the state negligent, despite Connecticut's
sovereign immunity law, which makes it difficult to sue the state in
But state Attorney General George Jepsen said that allowing Nash to
sue the state would "open the floodgates for unlimited lawsuits and
liability that would bankrupt the state." He urged lawmakers to
reject her request.
"Regardless of the extent of Ms. Nash's injuries, or whether in
hindsight, DEEP could have done things differently or better, the
law does not support this claim. Nor is it in the public interest to
grant it," said Jepsen at the hearing.
PUBLIC SAFETY CONCERN
Nash filed a lawsuit against Herold, who died in 2010. In 2012, a
settlement was reached in the amount of $4 million, nearly the
entire amount of Herold's estate.
Willinger said Connecticut is one of only several states in the
country that maintains sovereign immunity, and the only one where a
single claims commissioner makes the decision.
"This case is about the systemic, institutional gross negligence of
the Department of Energy and Environment Protection, from the
commissioner all the way down to its police force," Willinger said.
"What we're asking for is to let a court of law decide whether the
DEEP was negligent."
Late in the day, Willinger presented the committee with a memo
written by state DEEP biologist Elaine Hinsch to her supervisors in
October 2008, less than four months before the chimp attacked Nash.
"The issue of the private ownership of Travis the chimpanzee
continues to be a concern as to public safety," Hinsch wrote in the
"The animal has reached adult maturity, is very large and
tremendously strong. I am concerned that if he feels threatened or
if someone enters his territory, he could seriously hurt someone."
"As you are aware, this is the same chimpanzee that escaped from the
owner's car and led local police on a wild chase for hours in
downtown Stamford until the animal could be secured back in the
Members of the 45-member committee seemed stunned by Willinger's
"You and Charla Nash have given us a lot to go over," State Senator
John Kissel, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Willinger.
"Everyone knows I walked in here today more inclined to agree with
the attorney general. But there is a lot of information you have
brought to our attention that we need to carefully consider."
The committee has until April 2 to make a decision on whether to
recommend to the full state legislature that Nash be permitted to
sue the state. If it decides against overruling the decision by the
claims commissioner, the legislature will not be permitted to
consider the matter.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Sophie Hares, Steve Orlofsky and Gunna