It was inevitable; the family of the victim of the now famous chimp attack has filed a $50 Million lawsuit against the chimp owner. The lawsuit alleges that the chimp’s owner, Sandra Herold, knew that the chimp had “exhibited aggressive behavior” to other people in the past and had “failed to take sufficient actions to safeguard third parties from the wild animal”. The victim and the chimp’s owner were friends and the chimp, named Travis, which weighed a hefty 200 pounds, had been a family pet since infancy.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of plaintiff, Charla Nash, by the firm of Willinger, Willinger and Bucci who have petitioned the court to freeze the defendant’s assets. A key issue in the case is whether a “wild” animal should ever be a pet in someone’s home. In this case, that theory could be buttressed if the alleged prior “aggressive behavior” can be demonstrated. Attorney Charles Willinger, a named partner in plaintiff’s law firm said that “these animals are wild, wild animals and have no business being in anyone’s home”. He stated that the dangerous condition presented by the wild animal creates strict liability in the case. The lawsuit describes the plaintiff’s injuries as loss of both hands and traumatic facial injuries including loss of nose, upper and lower lips, eyelids and the bony structures in the face. The plaintiff is in critical condition at the Cleveland Clinic.
This lawsuit appears unusual; the elements of a chimpanzee or wild animal seem to make it so, but, in legal circles, animal attack cases are not at all unusual. This is very similar to a domestic dog or cat attack under homeowner liability and animal attack statutes. In most jurisdictions, homeowners are strictly liable for injuries resulting from unprovoked pet attacks against social or business invitees. The law is very clear and simple in cases like this and strict liability (if there was no provocation) will probably apply here. The fact that this was a wild animal might result in a finding of gross negligence in this case, and may outrage the trier of fact, but that may be the only real difference between wild and domestic animal cases.
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