Was Chimp Attack a Workplace Incident?

October 15, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The much publicized attack by a 200-pound chimpanzee that left a Connecticut woman mauled and blinded may end up being handled as a workplace incident instead of being dealt with in civil court - at least if one lawyer has his way.

The attorney representing Sandra Herold, who owned the chimpanzee named Travis, now contends the proper way to deal with the February incident in Stamford, Connecticut, is through the state’s workers’ compensation system.

According to an Associated Press news account, Herold’s attorney, Robert Golger, argued in court documents that Charla Nash was an employee of Herold’s tow truck company, Desire Me Motors, when the attack took place outside Herold’s home. Golger claimsTravis was an integral part of the business, saying the chimp’s picture was on the wrecker, he appeared at the firm’s garage daily, and showed up at numerous promotional events.

When Herold asked Nash to help lure Travis back into her house in Stamford, which serves as a business office for the company, he attacked, ripping off Nash’s hands, nose, lips, and eyelids. She remains in stable condition at the Cleveland Clinic. As an employee of Herold’s,Nash fed Travis, cleaned his play area, and purchased his supplies, Golger contends.

Nash’s family filed a $50-million lawsuit against Herold, saying she was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control “a wild animal with violent propensities.”

According to the news account, Golger’s legal strategy could dramatically trim the potential damages Herold might have to pay by effectively insulating her from personal liability. Under workers’ compensation, the employer’s insurance carrier would cover Nash’s medical bills and Nash would receive a partial salary, but would receive nothing for pain and suffering.

To win the legal argument, Herold will need to prove there was an employer-employee relationship and that Nash’s injuries were work-related.

“It’s an unfortunate and tragic accident that happened in the workplace and should be subject to the provisions of the Connecticut workers’ compensation statutes,” Golger said Wednesday, according to the news account.

The 14-year-old chimp was shot and killed by police when he tried to attack a police officer responding to the assault on Nash. Test results showed that Travis had the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in his system at the time of the attack, but investigators don’t know whether the drug played a role.

Matt Newman, attorney for Nash’s family, said he disagrees with the argument but declined further comment, according to the news account.