By Jon Lender, The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Connecticut — Charla Nash, blind since a 2009 mauling by a chimpanzee that ripped off her face and hands, says in a video plea to legislators that her disabilities make her feel “locked up … like I’m in a cage.”
Nash’s legal and public-relations team released the video in advance of a Connecticut General Assembly hearing Friday on her request that legislators let her sue the state for $150 million.
In the nearly seven-minute video, Nash says she hopes lawmakers “will allow me to have my day in court — that I will be able to have a judge listen to the evidence that is brought before him about the vicious attack on me, and that it shall not happen to any other person again.”
Nash, who needed a face transplant, is expected to appear but not testify at the public hearing before the judiciary committee, said Kevin Reynolds, a lobbyist for Nash’s legal team.
The committee hearing is the first step in the Legislature’s deliberations on Nash’s effort to overturn a decision last June by state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr.
Vance denied Nash’s request that he waive the state’s sovereign immunity against lawsuits seeking financial damages and allow her to file a $150 million lawsuit in Superior Court against the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The General Assembly has the power to pass legislation overruling the claims commissioner’s decision.
Rep. Gerald Fox III, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said Tuesday that the committee has until April 2 to vote on Nash’s appeal and send a resolution forward for final General Assembly approval.
Fox said he’s not inclined to have the Nash video shown as part of the hearing, which may take all afternoon. “If they want to make (copies of) it available to members of the committee” for viewing later, Fox said, that’s fine with him.
The video shows Nash close up as she talks. Part of it shows her feeling her way along the hallway of the Boston-area convalescent facility where she lives, then entering her room and sitting down on a hospital-style bed.
“It’s a different world to not be able to see again or to use your hands and just do things for yourself,” Nash says, speaking slowly but more clearly than in an interview with The Hartford Courant about two years ago. “That you have to depend on other people for help now, it’s very hard.”
She says she is waiting for another hand-transplant operation, some three years after a double hand-transplant operation failed. “I want to … try one more time to have hands and be able to do more on my own,” she says.
She says that Feb. 16 was the five-year milestone after the mauling by the 200-pound chimp named Travis, who was owned by Nash’s friend and employer, Sandra Herold. The attack happened when Nash answered Herold’s call to come and help return Travis to his cage after he had escaped and was roaming Herold’s Stamford property. The chimp was killed by police.
When Nash says in the video that “I feel like I’m in a cage,” her emphasis is clearly on “I’m” — it’s now she, not Travis, who is caged.
“The last five years has been a lot of work and … a lot of challenges. And I’m up for the challenges,” Nash, 60, says in the video. “It’s a shame that this … attack had to happen … unfortunately, but now I’m trying to work the best I can to have my sanity and I just … want to be normal as I can be.”
She talks in the video about waking after the attack, with her brother in the hospital room, before realizing that she was blind.
“I asked him to turn the lights on and he’s kind of quiet,” she says. “And I said, ‘Mike, turn the lights on,’ and he said to me … ‘The lights are on.’ ”
“Well they’re not working good. Could you turn them up?” she recalls saying. Then, she says, it dawned on her: “Little by little, it did come together, and I wasn’t happy when I was figuring it out.”
The video covers much of the same material that the Nash team has been circulating among legislators in a half-inch-thick, spiral-bound book entitled “IN THE MATTER OF CHARLA NASH.” Among the photos in the book is a menacing-looking color shot of the hulking chimp at age 14, around the time of the attack. His teeth are bared and he’s seated on a couch in an adult diaper with his belly bulging.
The briefing book is filled with exhibits such as government memos to bolster Nash’s claim that state environmental officials knew the chimpanzee was dangerous but failed to protect her.
“The … DEEP first learned of the chimpanzee in October, 2003,” the briefing book says. “It is well-documented that the animal escaped from Ms. Herold’s motor vehicle in downtown Stamford on the night of October 19, 2003. It took Stamford Police and the Herolds approximately two hours to capture the animal and return it to the Herolds’ car.
“Officials from the city looked to the (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) for guidance as to how to address the problems presented by this chimpanzee,” but the agency refused to provide any assistance, the book says.
The book includes an October 2008 memo by Elaine Hinsch, an official at the environmental agency, who called the chimp “an accident waiting to happen,” warning other officials at the agency that Travis had grown too powerful and dangerous to remain with Herold. The memo has been cited repeatedly by Nash’s lawyer, Charles Willinger of Bridgeport, as proof that the agency knew of the danger and did nothing.
Meanwhile, “the DEEP seized a much smaller and less dangerous (ape), a gibbon, in 2008” and charged its owner with “illegal possession of a primate,” the book says.
Less than four months after Hinsch wrote her memo, the attack occurred. Beyond Nash’s other wounds, she suffered traumatic brain injuries, the book says. Also, she lost all of one hand and all but the thumb of the other.
The state attorney general’s office is opposing Nash’s effort — saying in effect that although Nash’s injuries were tragic, taxpayers shouldn’t pay for them. The office’s lawyers have cited a body of law called the public duty doctrine. Under that doctrine, they said, the state has a duty to protect the general public in regulatory matters, but not any specific individual who might be injured by a person who is not complying with state regulations.
Herold, the chimp’s owner, died in 2010. Nash’s lawyers sued her estate, and about a year ago they reached a $4 million settlement that gave Nash nearly the full amount of Herold’s net worth.
Legislators from time to time reverse the claims commissioner’s rulings. Last year, they voted to give five claimants the right to sue the state after they were denied by the claims commissioner; they confirmed the commissioner’s denial of 11 other claims.
Photo: emeybee via Vlickr