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Published March 21 2014

Connecticut chimp attack victim seeks right to sue state

HARTFORD, Conn. - A woman whose face and hands were ripped off by a friend's pet chimpanzee in 2009 came to the Connecticut statehouse on Friday to ask permission to sue the state for $150 million in damages.

Protective white gauze wrapped around her head, Charla Nash, 60, who has undergone a face transplant and many other surgeries, including a failed double-hand transplant, spoke with Reuters moments before making her plea to the Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.

"I want my day in court," said Nash, who is asking lawmakers to pass legislation overruling a June decision by State Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. denying her request to waive Connecticut's sovereign immunity against lawsuits.

"This should have never happened," said Nash, who was at the Stamford home of her friend and employer, Sandra Herold, when Herold's pet chimp, Travis, attacked her, leaving her blind and disfigured. The animal was shot dead at the scene by a Stamford police officer.

"These kinds of exotic animals do not belong in homes. They need to be in their own environment and that is where Travis should have been," said Nash, who wore a white hat with ear flaps over the gauze protecting her still-healing head.

Nash sent a seven-minute video to the lawmakers, describing her life in a Boston area convalescent facility where she is highly dependent on staff.

"I feel locked up ... like I'm in a cage," she said in the video sent to members of the Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.

Her lawyers have said that, before the attack, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Protection (DEEP) described the illegally owned 200-pound (90 kilo) chimp as a serious threat to public safety and an "accident waiting to happen."

Her legal team has argued that she has the right for a court to decide whether to find the state negligent, despite Connecticut's sovereign immunity law that makes it difficult to sue the state in such cases.

Nash filed a lawsuit against Herold, who died in 2010. In 2012, a settlement was reached in the amount of $4 million, nearly the entire amount of Herold's estate.

State Attorney General George Jepsen said despite Nash's "horrific injuries," she cannot sue the state because it would "set a dangerous precedent and open the door to potentially unlimited lawsuits against Connecticut. We must protect the taxpayers."

Nash's attorney, Charles Willinger of Bridgeport, said Connecticut was one of only several states in the country that maintains sovereign immunity, and the only one where a single claims commissioner makes the decision.

"This case is about the systemic, institutional gross negligence of the Department of Energy and Environment Protection, from the commissioner all the way down to its police force," Willinger said. "What we're asking for is to let a court of law decide whether the DEEP was negligent."