Chimp Attack Victim Pushes Lawsuit Effort Into Legislature

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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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.  Nash who was mauled in a 2009 chimpanzee attack is attending a hearing to determine whether she may sue the state for $150 million in claimed damages. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
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.

It's certainly not as easy as filing a lawsuit and going to trial.

Charla Nash, disfigured by her friend's chimpanzee in 2009, is still hoping to have her day in court. But to do that, her lawyers first had to convince the state claims commissioner, J. Paul Vance Jr., that the state should allow her to sue. The state generally is immune to lawsuits, unless they are allowed by the claims commissioner.

And this is no run-of-the-mill personal injury case. Nash's lawyers are seeking $150 million in damages. They say state officials knew the chimp, named Travis, was dangerous and did nothing about it.

Vance granted a motion last year by the state attorney general dismissing the claim. Nash's only recourse is to convince lawmakers to overturn the claims commissioner's ruling. She will present her case to the Judiciary Committee, which will then vote to either approve or deny her request to overturn Vance's decision.

With the state General Assembly convening for its 2014 session, Nash's appeal to state lawmakers is expected to be one of the big issues up for debate. A chairman of the Judiciary Committee said he expects a day-long public hearing. After a vote in the committee, the decision will be subject to final approval by the House and Senate.

Nash's lawyers knew they were in for a battle from the beginning. Sources say they hired a lobbyist, Kevin Reynolds, who is also legal counsel for the Democratic Party, before the claims commissioner ever made a ruling dismissing Nash's petition seeking permission to sue the state.

Reynolds will reportedly be paid $60,000 to represent Nash at the capital and try to convince lawmakers that she deserves her day in court. Reynolds has already been circulating documents to lawmakers stating their case.

"We believe this is a case that deserves to be heard by a judge of the Superior Court," said one of Nash's lawyers, Matthew Newman of Willinger Willinger & Bucci in Bridgeport. "We also think that [Vance] did not consider or at least did not properly consider all relevant and very compelling facts in reaching his conclusions. There were certain facts he did not mention in his memorandum that we think are very important."

For instance, Newman said that a few months before the attack, a Fairfield man named Pierce Onthank was charged with illegal possession of a primate. According to court records, Onthank did not possess a proper permit to have the siamang, a type of gibbon.

Onthank's case was later dismissed. Newman believes state Department of Environmental Protection officials should have similarly charged Travis' owner, Sandra Herold, or at least removed the chimp from the home. He claims DEP officials had been warned that Travis was dangerous.

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