Compensation for chimp attack victim in state legislative spotlight
Published 5:41 am, Tuesday, April 3, 2012
When they ran for office, state legislators could never have contemplated a day when their duties included deciding if and how to compensate a resident whose face and hands were destroyed by a friend's chimpanzee.
In the coming months members of the General Assembly will begin grappling with that exact issue, as Stamford chimp attack victim Charla Nash seeks permission to sue environmental regulators for $150 million.
"This is one of the scariest, most horrific things that could ever happen to a human being," Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a ranking member of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said of Nash's mauling in 2009.
The Judiciary Committee may play a key role in whether she is granted any relief because of the unique process Nash must navigate to take the state to court.
Despite the intense sympathy Kissel and other lawmakers interviewed feel for the victim, they are concerned with the amount of money she is demanding and the precedent the case could set for future claims.
"We still have a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to review these matters as carefully as we can," Kissel said. "This is not a small case by any stretch."
Some are also raising the delicate question of whether Nash should have avoided interacting with the primate.
Nash, 58, was attacked by late friend and employer Sandra Herold's pet chimp, Travis, in 2009 after trying to help Herold return the 200-pound pet to his cage.
Nash argues that the then-state Department of Environmental Protection should have seized Travis years earlier, before he went berserk and was ultimately shot and killed by police officers.
The office of attorney general has countered the DEP's authority over a privately owned animal was unclear.
For two years, Nash's complaint has been pending with the claims commissioner, a politically appointed office that decides whether claims of damages or injury lodged against the state are "just" and related lawsuits should proceed.
The only avenue of appeal is the General Assembly, starting with the Judiciary Committee.
The attorney general's office is scheduled to submit a motion to dismiss Nash's case by April 12, at which point Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. is expected to begin his decision-making process.
Nash, during the course of her recovery and successful face transplant, has appeared nationally on NBC's "Today Show" and Oprah Winfrey's former talk show. Now her lawyer, Charles Willinger of Bridgeport, has begun a public relations campaign at the state Capitol with the help of New York-based Tactical Public Relations.
Tactical's website boasts, "Where we live, eat, breathe making you money by getting you noticed."
Last month Nash, recovering in Boston, was interviewed by The Hartford Courant. The newspaper wrote the sit-down interview offered by Nash's team "at an important moment in their pursuit of her legal interests."
"It's extremely rare," said Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, longest continually serving member of the Judiciary Committee, of Reynolds' hiring.
Reynolds in a brief interview said his job is to meet with legislators, explain Nash's position and, in the case of a rejection by the claims commissioner, why the decision should be reconsidered.
"You're an advocate, just not in a courtroom," he said.
"They're planning for contingencies if the claims commissioner doesn't satisfy her demands," he observed. "It's a very bizarre way to handle what amounts to a legal issue. It's as if a plaintiff in a civil trial had the capacity to lobby jurors. (But) the law provides for this process so they need to use every sort of tactic they can, including presenting her as a sympathetic figure, presenting her case publicly through media interviews and going to the Legislature and saying this is what happened and we think the public is on our side."
If Vance rejects her lawsuit, Nash faces an uphill battle to convince the General Assembly to reverse that decision. Veteran legislators say rarely is a claims commissioner's determination overturned.
"We need to find some grounds in our opinion even if it's a heart-wrenching case," Kissel said.
And $150 million is a daunting amount during tough fiscal times.
Some observers in discussing Nash's claim recalled when the Legislature in 2007 awarded former inmate James Tillman $5 million for being wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years on charges of rape and sexual assault. In return, Tillman released the state from liability.
"Tillman got $5 million," James Amann, a Milford Democrat who was House speaker at the time, said. $150 million "seems just a little extreme to me. It's a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. But you'd open a Pandora's box."
Gerard Smyth, who represented Tillman pro bono, recalled, "Legislators felt a social obligation, a moral obligation ... They were just concerned about doing the right thing."
In contrast, some judiciary committee members harbor doubts about the merits of Nash's complaint against the DEP.
Godfrey said at this point he does not believe the state is liable. He said it is more appropriate for Nash to seek restitution from her pending lawsuit against Herold's estate. That is also the attorney general's position.
"That's going after the alleged perpetrators," Godfrey said.
Another ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said Nash has suffered terribly but questioned whether she could have avoided being exposed to Travis.
"I haven't researched it. I don't know what the responsibilities of the DEP may be," Hetherington said. "I suppose there's a certain degree of fault or assumption of risk on the part of the person. She knew the animal was kept (by Herold). I guess she had visited before and certainly was not very prudent to go into that situation."
Nash told The Courant she had always encountered Travis behind a cage or barrier.
While a Stamford resident, Nash lived in Rep. Gerald Fox's district. Fox, a Democrat, is a Judiciary Committee chairman.
Fox said he did not know Nash and has not decided what if anything the state should do for her. "They're going through the process, following the proper protocols," Fox said.
Smyth did not want to comment on Nash but said when representing Tillman it was helpful to introduce him to legislators at the Capitol. Smyth asked then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell to invite Tillman to her 2007 budget address, where she made the first public offer of compensation -- $500,000.
"This personalizes it and put it on their radar screen," Smyth said.
Reynolds, asked if Nash might be meeting Judiciary Committee members, said, "We haven't thought that far, yet."