Conn. Seeks to Dismiss Claim by Chimp Victim

Lawyers for Charla Nash are accusing state officials of failing to seize the chimpanzee before the mauling

By Susan Haigh
|  Friday, Aug 10, 2012  |  Updated 12:13 PM EDT
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Charla Nash, second from left, talks with attorneys Matthew D. Newman, second from right and Charles J. Willinger Jr., right, as her brother Stephen, left, looks on before for a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn.

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Connecticut's attorney general's office urged a state official on Friday to dismiss a claim filed by a woman who was severely disfigured by a chimpanzee that went berserk in 2009.

While Charla Nash deserves sympathy for her plight and admiration for how she's handled it, Assistant Attorney General Maite Barainca said the state is not liable for the actions of the privately own animal. If Nash were allowed to sue, Barainca said, the state would be financially vulnerable for every regulatory failure, such as a state-licensed doctor who harms a patient.

"We simply may not be able to afford many of the regulations that we rely on for public order and public safety," she told state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr., who presided over a hearing on the state's motion to dismiss Nash's claim. Vance is expected to act within 30 days.

Nash, who attended the hearing with her brother and supporters, is seeking permission to sue the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for $150 million in damages.

She was attacked in February 2009 by a friend's 200-pound pet chimpanzee after its owner asked Nash to help lure it back into her house in Stamford, Conn. The animal, named Travis, ripped off Nash's nose, lips, eyelids and hands before being shot to death by police.

Nash was blinded in the attack. She underwent a face and double hand transplant in 2011, but the hands failed to thrive because of complications and were removed.

Nash accuses the state agency of failing to seize the animal before the mauling, despite a staff member's warning that it was dangerous.

Charles Willinger, Nash's attorney, said his client lives in a nursing home outside of Boston "in total darkness," ''without eyes, without hands." He said she is "permanently scarred, emotionally, physically" and will never be able to see her daughter again or hold her hand.

She "endures loneliness, despair and suffering beyond anyone's comprehension in this room," said Willinger, who urged Vance to be the "conscience of this state."

Willinger said the chimp had been on the state agency's radar since 2003, when it escaped from its owner and ran loose in Stamford. It was the only chimpanzee in the state and was commonly referred to as the gorilla in Stamford.

State officials have contended they did not have the authority to seize the animal.

Several 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."

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