The Connecticut woman disfigured in a 2009 chimpanzee attack asked state lawmakers Friday to grant her the ability to sue the state so she can pay her medical bills and “have a chance to live a comfortable life.”
“The state knew what was happening and failed to protect me,” the woman, Charla Nash, said at a public hearing before being guided back to her seat by her college-age daughter, Briana, who later fed her a banana with a spoon.
Nash’s lawyer Charles Willinger contends the state’s environmental agency “failed miserably” in its mission to keep the public, especially Nash, safe, by not seizing the 200-pound chimpanzee when it had the chance. That inaction, Willinger argued, led to Nash’s life being irreparably harmed.
“Today, Charla’s world is basically one of darkness. She sits in a room without eyes, without hands, without her own face. She is obviously, permanently scarred, not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically,” he said. “She cannot see Briana, and in my way of thinking, even worse, she can’t embrace Briana.”
The sight of Nash and her daughter appeared to move some members of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which is considering her request.
“The simple words spoken by Ms. Nash rang loudly, I think for all of us,” said Sen. John Kissel, the top-ranking Senate Republican on the committee, who acknowledged he questions whether Nash has legal standing to sue the state. “There doesn’t seem to be any bitterness. There doesn’t seem to be any grudge. It seems to be a woman trying to do the best she can with the horrific circumstances she endured.”
The committee is considering a bill that would overrule a decision last year by State Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr., who refused Nash’s request for permission to sue the state. It’s a last-ditch effort by Nash’s attorneys to recoup damages from the state, which generally is immune from lawsuits unless allowed by the commissioner. The panel has until April 2 to act on the bill.
Kissel suggested there may be a way for legislators to assign a monetary value to Nash’s claim, without her having to go to court, and vote on that proposal this session, which ends May 7.
Nash’s lawyers have asked for $150 million, but Willinger said she would be willing to settle for less, possibly half that. He also said Nash would accept a settlement that could be paid out over years, reducing the impact on the state budget.
The 200-pound chimpanzee, known as Travis, attacked Nash on Feb. 16, 2009, when she went to the Stamford home of its owner, Sandra Herold, to help her friend and employer to lure the animal back inside. The chimp went berserk and Nash lost her nose, lips, eyelids and hands before the animal was shot to death by a police officer.
Nash resides at a Massachusetts convalescent center, where she is awaiting a second attempt at a hand transplant.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen told lawmakers the state cannot be held responsible.
“I am not here to diminish Ms. Nash’s suffering. It has been and will continue to be horrific,” said Jepsen, also acknowledging the former Department of Environmental Protection’s actions were not “flawless.” Nash’s lawyers have pointed to a memo from a DEP biologist who warned that the chimpanzee was “an accident waiting to happen.”
“Rather, my argument is this: Regardless of the extent of Ms. Nash’s injuries, or whether in hindsight DEP could have done things differently or better, the law does not support this claim,” Jepsen said. “Nor is it in the public interest to grant it.”
Jepsen warned that overruling Vance’s decision would create a dangerous precedent for the state and “open the floodgates” for other claims, an argument dismissed by Willinger as “a Chicken Little response.”
Nash reached a $4 million settlement in 2012 with the estate of Herold, who died in 2010. Her attorneys say that will only cover a small portion of her medical costs, which are estimated to be in the millions. 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. That doesn’t include outside medical care, medication costs and surgeries.
On Friday, Jepsen said if Nash is allowed to sue, claiming the state was negligent in not seizing the animal, others will likely pursue lawsuits concerning alleged negligence involving millions of state permit and license-holders. Jepsen said there are cases awaiting a decision on Nash’s request.