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Chimp Owner Potentially Liable For Injuries

I’m sure most people caught the outrageous story of the 200-pound pet chimp who went berserk and attacked his owner’s house guest. Sure to draw attention due to the bizarre circumstances, the story appeared in most newspapers across the country including the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Charla Nash, 55, was visiting her good friend, Sandra Herold, when Herold’s beloved 14-year-old chimpanzee, Travis, savagely attacked Nash, leaving her in critical condition at Stamford Hospital. The chimp could be heard in the background grunting while attacking Nash as Herold sobbed to the 911 dispatcher, “He’s killing my friend…My Chimpanzee…He ripped her apart…Shoot him…Shoot him.”

Herold admitted during an interview aired on NBC’s “Today” show that she had given Travis the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, which had not been prescribed to him. As authorities considered criminal charges, Herold recanted this account and now denies that she gave the chimp the drug.

The same chimp, who was fatally shot by police during the attack of Nash, also bit a woman in 1996, the woman said in an interview broadcast Thursday.

The woman, Leslie Mostel-Paul of Atlanta, Georgia, said Travis the chimp bit her hand and tried to pull her into a vehicle as she greeted him. She said she complained to the chimp’s owner and to police.

Travis was killed Monday after severely wounding his owner’s friend, 55-year-old Charla Nash. Nash remained hospitalized Thursday with critical injuries to her face and hands.

“I honestly believe if they had followed through, maybe the laws would have been changed sooner and this other woman wouldn’t be in the hospital, fighting for her life now,” said Mostel-Paul, a former Stamford resident who lives in Atlanta.

Owner Sandra Herold, who raised the chimpanzee from its infancy, has said he was a loving pet whose behavior Monday was completely out of character.

Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her when he attacked Nash, who she said was driving a different car, wearing a new hairstyle and holding an Elmo stuffed toy in front of her face as a present to the chimp.

Meanwhile, an animal control officer, Lynn DellaBianco, said she warned Herold in 2003 after Travis escaped Herold’s vehicle and frolicked in downtown Stamford traffic for a few hours. DellaBianco, who ran Stamford’s animal shelter at the time, told “Today” she warned Herold that the pet’s mischievous behavior was worrisome.

“I did express concern that obviously this could turn into something worse if he really decided to start getting angry and do something,” DellaBianco said.

Authorities have not said whether Herold will face criminal charges. State law allowed her to own the 14-year-old chimp as a pet, though several state leaders are calling for tighter restrictions in the wake of the latest attack.

While bizarre to say the least, this case illustrates potential liability that pet owners face for actions of their pets. While most people think that Georgia and other states apply the “one free bite” rule, this is not the case. Generally, a pet owner can be held liable for the injuries of their pet if they new, or should have known that the animal was dangerous to others. One concrete example of this would be an attack by an animal who has previously attacked before. In the case of Travis the Chimp, the 1996 biting of the Atlanta woman should suffice as prior notice on Herold’s part that Travis was a potential danger to others. While this is true, and the “one bite” rule does apply, the law regarding liability in these cases is much broader. If an animal owner is negligent and that negligence leads to an attack, the animal owner will be liable to the victim for the damages suffered in the attack. This general rule of liability applies even if the animal has never attacked before.