HARTFORD, Conn. — The state attorney general’s office urged a key official on Friday to dismiss a $150 million claim filed by a woman who was mauled and disfigured by a chimpanzee that went to berserk in 2009.
But the victim, who has amassed millions of dollars in medical and other bills, said she’s holding out hope the claims commissioner will ultimately grant her permission to sue the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which she holds responsible for not seizing the animal despite a state biologist’s warning it was dangerous.
“I hope and pray that the commissioner will give me my day in court,” Charla Nash told reporters following the hearing. “And I also pray that I hope this never happens to anyone else again. It is not nice.”
Nash, 57, 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. She said Friday she still hopes to get a double hand transplant.
Assistant Attorney General Maite Barainca told Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. that Nash deserves sympathy for her plight and admiration for the courage she has shown in handling it, but argued that the state should not be held liable for actions of the privately owned animal.
“There is no claim that the state directly caused Ms. Nash’s injuries. The state did not own or possess the chimp that attacked her” and played no role in letting the chimp loose that day in 2009 on private property, said Barainca.
Charles Willinger, Nash’s attorney, said his client lives in a nursing home outside 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. He said Nash “endures loneliness, despair and suffering beyond anyone’s comprehension in this room,” and urged Vance to be the “conscience of this state” when deciding whether to allow her to sue.
Nash told described her feelings of loneliness to reporters.
“I miss home,” said Nash, who wore sunglasses and a turquoise top, and was accompanied by her brother Steve. “You know, when you’re in a facility, you’re alone. It’s hard. But I’m thankful that I’m still here.”
Vance is expected to issue a decision on the state’s motion to dismiss the case within 30 days. If he rules in favor of the state, Nash cannot proceed with a hearing on the merits of her claim. She could, however, appeal to the General Assembly and ask state legislators to overrule the commissioner’s decision.
If, however, Vance denies the state’s motion to dismiss, a trial-like hearing will be held before him. Vance would then have to decide whether to allow Nash to sue the DEEP in superior court.
Willinger contends that Travis 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.”
In October 2008, the biologist warned that the chimpanzee had reached adult maturity and “is very large and tremendously strong.” The biologist said, “I am concerned that if he feels threatened or if someone enters his territory, he could seriously hurt someone.”