Charla Nash, right, talks with attorney Matthew D. Newman before for a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (David K Purdy)
It looks like Charla Nash, mauled and disfigured by her friend’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee in 2009, will not get her day in court.
Nash sought permission to sue the state and wanted $150 million in damages. Her lawyers argued that the chimp, named Travis, was known to be dangerous by state officials but they did nothing about it.
But the state generally is immune to such lawsuits, unless they are allowed by the claims commissioner. That man, J. Paul Vance Jr., granted a motion last year by the state attorney general dismissing the claim.
Nash’s only option was to convince lawmakers to override Vance’s decision and let her bring her case to court.
However, the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee voted 35-3 last week in favor of upholding Vance’s decision.
Though Nash’s lawyers—Charles Willinger Jr. and Matthew Newman, of Willinger, Willinger & Bucci in Bridgeport—declined to comment on the lawmakers’ decision for this article, Nash issued a written statement to the press last week. She said the decision was “devastating” and she was “heartbroken” that she won’t get an opportunity to tell her side of the story in a courtroom.
“This process isn’t fair,” said Nash. “Right now, I need some time to think things through and talk with my family. 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. I can’t give up hope now. This means too much to my daughter Briana and me.”
A source with knowledge of the case said there are no further legal avenues for Nash and her lawyers to pursue.
Some committee members spoke about the difficulty in voting against Nash, who had impressed them with her courage earlier this month when she appeared at a public hearing with her daughter. Nash has undergone a face transplant and is currently living in a Massachusetts convalescent home, awaiting a hand transplant.
“It’s impossible to not feel human compassion for an individual who was brave enough to come to our public hearing … who has undergone the horrific injuries that she has had, the multiple surgeries, a facial transplant,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the highest-ranking Republican senator on the committee.
“Nonetheless it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find a legal basis that would afford her an ability to sue the state without, in my opinion, opening up the state to innumerable claims,” continued Kissel. “The case would be different, I believe, if the injuries took place on state property, and somehow there was state employees directly involved.”
Kissel said “there was a vast assumption of risk,” when Nash visited her friend that day knowing Travis the chimp was not in his cage.
State Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, a cochairman of the committee, agreed with Kissel in voting against Nash’s opportunity to sue, but did not think Nash assumed the risk.
“For me, the contributory negligence aspect, while it would certainly be relevant at a trial and which might ultimately mean Ms. Nash does not prevail, for my purposes or at least for my analysis, it does not come into consideration,” said Fox. “The DEP did have some awareness of the chimp and they did know that it had the potential possibility for danger. But that, in my mind, alone does not leap to the level that the state then has a responsibility as a private individual would in the same type of situation.”
Fox did agree with Kissel’s reasoning though, when he said that allowing Nash’s case to proceed to court would open the floodgates and “could conceivably cause the state of Connecticut to be a defendant in a whole host of cases.”
State Attorney General George Jepsen argued to the claims commissioner last year to dismiss Nash’s claim and again this year urged lawmakers to uphold that decision.
“I commend the Judiciary Committee for its careful consideration of this difficult and sensitive matter, and I believe they made the correct decision,” said Jepsen.
On Feb. 16, 2009, Nash had come to help her friend and employer Sandra Herold lure the woman’s pet chimp back inside. But the animal went berserk and attacked Nash without provocation, her lawyers claimed.
When police and emergency personnel arrived, Travis initially fled but then returned and attacked the police and EMTs. Travis damaged a police car and cornered an officer inside his vehicle. The officer then shot and killed the chimp.
Nash, meanwhile, was rushed to Stamford Hospital, where she underwent eight hours of emergency surgery just to keep her alive. She was next transferred to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. There, Nash underwent numerous surgical procedures on her face, eyes and hands. She also received physical, respiratory and occupational therapy, as well as counseling and other medical and nursing care.
In May 2011, Nash was admitted to Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, to be evaluated as a candidate for face and hand transplants. Later that month, a donor was identified and Nash underwent both transplants. But in June 2011, Nash underwent surgery for removal of the hand transplants as a result of infections and other medical complications. Since the face transplant, Nash has also received prosthetic eyes.
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.”
Nash originally sought $150 million from the state, but her lawyers later told lawmakers she would accept significantly less.
Nash reached a $4 million settlement in 2012 with the estate of Herold, who died in 2010. Nash’s attorneys have said that will only cover a small portion of her medical costs.
While she receives Social Security disability and Medicaid payments, Nash’s housing, treatment and meals at the nursing home cost about $16,000 a month, according to her attorneys. That amount does not include outside medical care, medication costs and surgeries.•
The Associated Press contributed to this report.