Connecticut's General Assembly should give Charla Nash, who was viciously attacked by a 200-pound chimpanzee in Stamford in 2009, the right to sue the state for its negligence in not enforcing the law that would have protected her from harm.
Last summer, the state's claims commissioner rejected Ms. Nash's request to sue the state for $150 million in Superior Court. She is appealing to the legislature to reverse that ruling by passing a bill that would allow her case to go forward. The claims commissioner misapplied the state law on possession of wild animals and a report from Elaine Hinsch, a state biologist, which are critical to Ms. Nash's claim.
Under Connecticut law at the time of the attack, residents wishing to own a primate weighing more than 50 pounds had to obtain a permit from what is now called the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The law required the DEEP to seize any animal that was illegally possessed and dispose of it. DEEP never issued the Stamford chimp's owner a permit, so the state should have seized the animal, which it didn't.
It is also worth noting that the law had been amended in 2004 specifically to deal with the chimpanzee that mauled Ms. Nash. The sponsor of the amendment said that requiring permits for any primate weighing more than 50 pounds would apply to one chimpanzee, the one that would attack Ms. Nash in 2009. The amendment was passed because, in 2003, concerned residents reported to DEEP that this chimpanzee had demonstrated aggressive behavior and that the public was in danger. Ms. Hinsch, the biologist, properly researched this complaint. She consulted experts, gathered more information about the chimpanzee and ultimately urged her supervisors to enforce the law.
In 2008, before the attack, Ms. Hinsch put on record that this chimpanzee was an "accident waiting to happen." She detailed in a memorandum to her supervisors the chimpanzee's location, age and propensity for violence. She added that the animal was illegally possessed and must be dealt with. She further cautioned that even the DEEP officers sent to seize the animal would be in danger of bodily harm from this animal. But, Ms. Hinsch insisted, it had to be done to protect the public. Incredibly, Ms. Hinch's superiors at the DEEP ignored her warning.
Less than four months after Ms. Hinsch wrote her memo, the attack happened at the home of the chimp's owner. Ms. Nash suffered the loss of her nose, upper and lower lips, eyelids and the bony structures in her mid-face.
Before 2009, the Stamford community, including its mayor, its police department and Ms. Nash, believed the chimp was not aggressive. Ms. Hinsch, as an expert, knew the truth and tried to protect the unsuspecting public from a dangerous wild animal. The lack of action by her supervisors was a serious failure within DEEP and Ms. Nash suffered an unimaginable attack.
Given the state law on primates requiring a permit for a chimp of this size and the Hinsch memorandum detailing the dangerous propensities of this animal, the DEEP knew of a discrete and identifiable danger and did nothing. It is our hope that the legislature's Judiciary Committee will read both the statute and the memorandum, as they are critical to an understanding of Ms. Nash's claim.
Finally, the granting of permission to sue the state does not result in a judgment against the state. Under the relevant statute, a case would have to be made before a judge in the Superior Court — not a jury — and that judge would have to analyze the law and the facts and come to a legal conclusion that the state was, in fact, at fault.
Granting Charla Nash permission to sue is only the beginning of a long road in her quest for justice. She should be given her day in court.
Ann Marie Willinger is an attorney in Bridgeport representing Charla Nash.