NEW YORK -- A woman who lost her face and hands in a mauling by a friend’s pet chimpanzee has lost her bid to sue the state of Connecticut for damages to pay medical bills, even as legislators expressed sympathy for her plight.
The decision Wednesday by the state judiciary committee could put to rest Charla Nash’s legal battle, which has been grinding through various courts since the September 2009 incident outside the Stamford, Conn., home of her friend, Sandra Herold.
In a statement after the 35-3 vote, Nash, 60, called the decision “devastating."
“I am heartbroken,” she said. “I wanted a chance to be able to pay my medical bills and get the assistance I need to live as normal of a life as possible.”
Connecticut is one of a handful of states with sovereign immunity, which protects it from most lawsuits seeking damages unless a claimant is granted permission.
Nash was mauled when she went to Herold’s home to help her corral the chimpanzee, 14-year-old Travis, after he had fled onto the street. Police called to the scene shot Travis dead as he clawed at Nash.
Nash lost both of her hands and suffered such severe facial injuries that she underwent a face transplant in 2011. She is blind and lives in a nursing and rehabilitation facility.
After Herold died in 2010, Nash sued her estate and settled two years later for $4 million, an amount her attorney said was far less than necessary to pay for a lifetime of medical care. She had hoped to sue the state for $150 million, alleging that Connecticut wildlife officials knew Travis had the potential for violence.
Among other things, Nash’s attorney, Charles J. Willinger Jr., said emails in 2007 and 2008 between Department of Environmental Protection officials indicated that there were concerns about Travis, who weighed about 200 pounds.
“It is an accident waiting to happen,” one official wrote to another about Travis in October 2008, according to the papers submitted requesting permission to sue the state. Since at least 2003, the papers said, state wildlife officials knew Travis was dangerous based on complaints it had received.
Opponents of the lawsuit argued that despite Nash’s horrific injuries, the state neither owned the chimp nor the property on which the attack occurred and should not be forced to pay damages. Allowing the lawsuit to go ahead, they said, would expose the state “to practically unlimited” claims arising from various licensing and regulatory laws.
“You certainly feel sad that you’re denying her the right to sue. However, I do feel we did the right thing,” Rep. Gerald Fox of Stamford said after Wednesday’s vote.
Nash had appeared before the commission last month to plead her case. Wearing a white knit cap, she was led slowly to the microphone and said she hoped to sue to get the money needed to pay her medical bills.
It was not clear if Nash has any legal options left. But she made clear on Wednesday that she hoped to keep fighting.
“I can’t give up hope now,” she said.