In the Wake of Chimp Attack, Pet Owners Notified of Legal Responsibility


New York—The case of a New York woman who was viciously attacked by her friend’s 200-lb pet chimpanzee is bringing the light the legal ramifications of pet ownership and responsibility.

Personal injury lawyers warn that pet owners can be found negligent in cases of pet-related injury, just as automobile or property owners are negligent in other accident cases. An alleged victim, however, must prove in court that the pet had “vicious propensities” in order to recover damages, and that the owner knew or should have known, based on prior behavior, that the animal could be dangerous. In the event of such proof, the animal’s owner can then be found responsible for all of the damages caused by the animal.

The chimpanzee case, which was highly publicized in February 2009, involved a 14-year-old primate named Travis who had been featured in television advertisements for such companies as Coca-Cola and Old Navy. Despite attempts by his 70-year-old owner–Sandra Herold–to sedate and subdue the chimp after he exhibited manic, violent behavior, Travis attacked Charla Nash, 55, a friend of Herold’s. Nash was critically injured with much of her face torn away and several broken bones following the attack. After a brief chase by emergency responders, the chimpanzee entered a police cruiser and attacked its driver, who then shot the chimp at close range, killing him.

Prompted by this attack, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the Captive Primate Safety Act. This bill, which passed by a vote of 323 to 95, prohibits the purchase or transportation across state lines of primates intended for pets.

Prominent New York-area personal injury attorney Richard Gurfein states dog bites are a far more common variety of animal attack. A dog, he says, can be classified as dangerous based upon the propensities of its breed, its individual prior actions, or the intentions of its owner. The law only requires that such a dog displays the potential to harm others. Pit bulls, Rottweilers and terriers commit two-thirds of reported animal-to-human attacks in the United States.

Victims of an animal attack such as a dog bite, especially if results in a so-called “severe injury” — one which results in a muscle tear or disfiguring laceration, or necessitates multiple stitches or corrective or cosmetic surgery – have the legal right to initiate a civil suit against the pet’s owner. The Commissioner of Health is then empowered to conduct a hearing to determine whether the animal should undergo destruction or confinement, or whether a fine will be levied against its owner.


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