State Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. has denied Charla Nash, who was blinded and disfigured in a 2009 chimpanzee attack in Stamford, in her bid to sue the state for $150 million in damages, according to the commissioner’s office.

“While it is lamentable that Mrs. Nash was attacked and injured by the chimpanzee, … she must show that the legislature, either expressly or by implication, waived the state’s sovereign immunity,” Vance wrote in his decision. “At the time Mrs. Nash was attacked, there was no statute that prohibited the private ownership of the chimpanzee, nor was there any statutory language that would have created a duty to Mrs. Nash as a private person.”

Nash lost her sight and both hands on Feb. 16, 2009. While visiting the Stamford home of her friend, Sandra Herold, Nash was attacked by “Travis,” an adult male chimpanzee Herold acquired a few weeks after his birth in 1994 in Missouri.

Herold died one year later, at age 72, of a ruptured aortic aneuryism.

Nash, who also had to undergo a face transplant to overcome extensive damage, sued the estate and reached a $4 million settlement, according to the AP.

But Nash also had charged that the state, and particularly the former Department of Environmental Protection, was negligent in allowing a large, powerful wild animal to be kept in the private residence of a senior citizen. The DEP was merged in 2011 with the state’s energy regulatory agency, and renamed the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

When Herold brought the 3½-week-old chimp home to Stamford in July 1994, it was the only chimp in the state, even including private and public zoos, Nash’s lawyer, Charles Willinger, argued in an August 2012 hearing before Vance.

“Travis” first popped up on the DEP’s radar in 2003 when he briefly escaped from Herold’s home, and was later recaptured.

Section 26-55 of the Connecticut General Statutes prohibits possession of a chimpanzee unless a permit has been issued by the DEP, but it exempted primates kept in the state prior to October 2003.  Willinger said this grandfathering provision effectively applied only to “Travis,” since he was the only known chimp in the state at the time.

One year later the legislature enacted a measure allowing primates in private residences, but a permit would be needed to keep any weighing over 50 pounds.

Between 2006 and 2008, “Travis” would reach maturity, weighing about 200 pounds, and a DEP biologist would write two memos expressing concern about the chimp’s size and aggressive behavior.

But Vance agreed with Attorney General George C. Jepsen’s office, which argued that the state had no role in the attack and that unless the legislature waives the state’s sovereign immunity when it drafts a regulatory statute, then the government cannot be sued for failure to enforce those regulations.



Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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