Chimp owner faces likely lawsuit, experts say

James Cohen in Hartford Courant, February 20, 2009

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - A woman whose 200-pound chimpanzee mauled and disfigured her best friend is vulnerable to a costly civil lawsuit, while the state also could face legal trouble for failing to take action, legal experts said Friday.

Travis, a 14-year-old chimp, was shot and killed by police Monday after he attacked 55-year-old Charla Nash of Stamford. Nash suffered massive injuries to her face and hands, requiring more than seven hours of surgery by four teams of doctors to stabilize her.

She was transferred in critical condition Thursday to the Cleveland Clinic, which two months ago performed the nation's first successful face transplant.

Hospital officials say it's unknown if Nash she will be a candidate for a face transplant. An evaluation of the extent of her injuries could take as much as a week, officials said Friday.

Police say Travis attacked Nash when she arrived at owner Sandra Herold's house to help lure the chimp back inside. Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her and attacked Nash because she had a different hairstyle, was driving a different car and held a stuffed toy in front of her face to get the chimp's attention.

"I think there's one helluva lawsuit against the owner," said attorney William Palmieri, who handled an animal neglect case in Connecticut. "The reasonableness of having a 200-pound wild animal is just nonexistent. It's not unforeseeable that such an animal could do what this animal has done."

Bill Monaco, an attorney representing Nash's family, said Friday it's too soon to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit.

"Basically she has made some progress," Monaco said. "The fact that she was even able to be transferred is good news. I don't believe they would have transferred her there if she was fighting for her life."

A lawsuit is "virtually certain" if Herold has assets, said Fordham law professor Jim Cohen. He predicted a lawsuit would be successful against Herold, who lives in wealthy North Stamford and owns a tow truck business.

"She was on notice that this chimpanzee was over the course of time getting crankier and crankier, getting less controllable and she didn't do anything about it," Cohen said.

Herold did not return a call Friday seeking comment.

Monday's attack was not the first time Travis bit someone, although it was by far the most serious incident. Two people said this week that Travis bit their fingers in 1996 and 1998, once hard enough to draw blood.

Police say they have no record of any complaints about Travis, aside from a 2003 incident where the chimp escaped from a vehicle and led Stamford police on a two-hour downtown chase before he was caught.

Authorities have not said whether Herold will face criminal charges. Connecticut state law allowed her to own the chimp as a pet, though several state leaders are calling for tighter restrictions in the wake of Monday's attack.

Cohen said he does not believe Herold should face criminal charges, noting that authorities allowed her to keep the chimp. He said the state could face a lawsuit as well.

"It's a little hard for me to see how they could charge her in good faith after they allowed this to continue," Cohen said. "It seems to me the state was complicit in permitting her to keep the chimp and not in any way following up on it."

Herold's neighbor, Jessica Peterson, said Friday that she believed the state should have taken action against Herold years ago. She said she wasn't told when she moved into the house in 2005 with infant twins that Herold owned a chimp.

"I can't imagine what would have happened on a different day," Peterson said. "It makes me ill to think about it."

Connecticut state law before 2003 required people to get permits to own quadrupeds, such as deer, but the language was changed that year to the broader term of "mammals" after someone asked about owning bats.

The General Assembly amended the statute in 2004 after learning about someone running a rescue group for monkeys.

That update exempted anyone from the permitting requirement if they owned a non-domestic mammal such as a primate before October 2003, as long as it weighed less than 50 pounds.

Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection knew of Travis -- who already well exceeded 50 pounds -- from his escape in the 2003 incident. But they did not take action to enforce the permitting requirement.

"Mrs. Herold had acquired that chimp in 1995, so it was eight years later in 2003 that we first had Travis on the radar screen," said Edward Parker, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's natural resources bureau. "We were not going to issue a permit under that circumstance. Issuance of a permit would not have changed what happened.

"We felt the animal had appropriate care and, again, there's a responsibility there that goes directly to the owner of the animal," he said.

Cohen and other legal experts said a lawsuit against the state could face more hurdles, including immunity laws. In some cases, lawyers must get permission to sue the state.

"I think there is potentially a viable civil claim" against the state, said attorney Paul Slager. The state should have known that chimpanzees can become violent as they mature, he said.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose office would defend the state in any lawsuit, said an improved law is needed in light of Monday's attack.

"I can't speculate on what the liability of the state or the city of Stamford may be, but certainly the state cannot be liable for a law that did not ban this animal -- and certainly now is the time for such a ban to improve the law," he said.

Herold also could face a civil claim if she gave the chimp Xanax, Slager said. "That suggests to me she thinks the animal is amped up," Slager said.

Herold has given differing accounts on whether she treated the agitated chimp with Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug that had not been prescribed for him.

A necropsy on Travis' body had been performed, but results won't be available for weeks.