Attorneys for Charla Nash, 55, and her family filed a $50 million lawsuit against Sandra Herold for her ownership of Travis, a 14-year old Chimpanzee, who left her with massive injuries. The 200-pound chimpanzee was a pet despite that fact that in many states such ownership is prohibited.
The tort action filed in Connecticut, alleges that the owner was negligent and reckless in her possession of a wild animal. These reports of the complaint are curious since wild animal possession normally triggers strict liability. The lawsuit alleges that Sandra Herold knew the chimp had a history of violent and erratic behavior. Even with domesticated animals, such knowledge would triggered strict liability under the so-called “one free bite rule.” For example, dogs are subject to strict liability if they are known to have bitten someone. The rule is a bit of a misnomer, as reaffirmed recently in Georgia. It does not take one bite to put a pet owner on notice to attach strict liability.
Thus, assuming that a chimp is considered as domesticated pet in Connecticut, there would still be a basis for strict liability for a pet with a vicious or violent propensity.
The lawsuit alleges that Travis had been acting strange that day and Nash was allegedly called to come over to help Herold get Travis into his cage.
Charla Nash remains in critical condition in Cleveland after losing her nose, upper and lower lips, eyelids and both her hands in the attack. The chimp, who was killed by police, also caused injury to the “bony structures in her mid-face.”
There remains a possible defense of assumption of the risk by Nash as well (assuming this is a negligence case) comparative negligence.
[UPDATE: Strict liability claims are now part of the lawsuit, here]