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Can Charla Nash, blinded by a chimp, sue her state for $150 million?

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemCharla NashStamfordSandra HeroldJohn A Kissel

A woman who lost her hands, eyesight and parts of her face when she was mauled by a friend's chimpanzee renewed a bid to seek $150 million in damages from the state of Connecticut, asking lawmakers Friday to accept her argument that the state had a duty to seize the allegedly dangerous animal.

The state had long known of and even investigated Travis the television-acting chimpanzee in North Stamford, Conn., officials said. But the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection never sought to remove Travis from Sandra Herold’s home before he attacked Charla Nash in 2009.

"I'm hoping that I can have a lawsuit that will allow me the means to pay my medical bills and the chance to live a comfortable life, and just as important, I want to make sure what happened to myself never happens to anyone again," Nash told lawmakers during brief remarks on Friday.

State lawyers said that the law says officials "shall" seek to work through the courts to remove dangerous animals. But "shall" is different than "must," Atty. Gen. George Jepsen said at a Judiciary Committee hearing. In addition, the law would have had to specifically waive the state's sovereign immunity for Nash's claim to proceed.

The committee has until April 2 to recommend to the full General Assembly whether Nash may sue the state in a bench trial.

Nash, 60, sitting alongside her 22-year-old daughter Briana, during the hearing urged lawmakers to overturn last year's decision by the state claims commissioner to throw out her case. The commissioner's permission is needed to waive the state's immunity from lawsuits, and the General Assembly is given the power to review the commissioner's decisions.  

Jepsen, a Democrat, told lawmakers that if they were to approve Nash's claim, it would open the floodgates to similar suits and bankrupt the state. Not every law can be enforced all the time, Jepsen said, and bad things will inevitably happen to good people. The state had no specific duty to protect Nash, and it couldn't be sued for failing to protect the general public.

"It would be unfair to allow it, having denied it in every case before it," he said.

Nash's attorney, Charles Willinger, called that argument a "Chicken Little doomsday scenario” that hasn’t come to bear in states that don't grant themselves blanket immunity.

At the time of the attack, state law required permits for large chimps, but Travis was grandfathered in without a permit because state officials said he didn’t pose a public health risk.

Nash's lawyer argued that the state knew Travis “was an accident waiting to happen” and “miserably failed” to protect people from the danger.

In February 2009, Travis had escaped from Herold’s home, and the woman called on Nash to help wrangle him back inside. That's when 200-pound Travis mauled her. Xanax, prescibed by a veterinarian, that the 14-year-old chimp had taken earlier that day may have led to the aggression. Authorities fatally shot the chimp at the scene.

Nash, who had worked for Herold’s towing company, needed a face transplant and says she still has health complications. She requires constant supervision at a nursing home, her lawyer said.

"Before that day, Charla was adventurous, compassionate and fun-loving," the attorney, Willinger, told the committee. "Today, her world is one of darkness. She's obviously permanently scarred physically, emotionally and psychologically."

Nash is receiving Social Security disability benefit and other public funds to help support her, but she has several outstanding medical bills, Willinger said.

Of the few states with sovereign immunity, Connecticut is the only one that puts the power of granting exceptions initially in the hands of a single person, Willinger said. The General Assembly has used its power to reverse decisions in the past, and it should do so in this especially "horrendous" case, he said.

Lawmakers said they had a lot to think about before they vote sometime in the next two weeks, including the possibility of reaching a settlement outside of court.

"The simple words spoken by Ms. Nash rang loudly," state Sen. John Kissel said during the televised hearing. "There doesn’t seem to be grudge.... It seems like a woman trying to do the best she can.”

Asked by Rep. William Tong, also a Democrat, whether officials' concerns about Travis created a duty for action, state attorneys replied that it did not but that the Legislature could change the law going forward.

Herold, 72, died about a year after the mauling. Her estate later awarded $4 million to Nash to settle a lawsuit in which she had sought $50 million.

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