Whitehall couple sues Pittsburgh zoo over son's mauling by painted dogs

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 12:13 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium “blatantly ignored” a worker's early warning about a wild dog enclosure where 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh tumbled to his death in November, a wrongful death lawsuit filed on Thursday alleges.

Zoo worker Lou Nene told horticulture curator Frank Pizzi that he was worried a child could fall into the enclosure, having watched parents lift their youngsters onto a railing or hold them up to see the animals' unguarded viewing area every day, according to the suit.

But Pizzi cautioned Nene that it wasn't his concern and instructed him to get back to work, the suit filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court alleges.

The complaint does not specify when the conversation took place other than indicating it was before the toddler's Nov. 4 death. Nene and Pizzi could not be reached on Thursday. Zoo officials do not comment on pending legal action, zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said.

The 41-page lawsuit leveled stark new allegations in the only visitor fatality in the zoo's 115-year history. Attorneys accused zoo officials of arming workers with unloaded or blank tranquilizer guns, keeping non-functioning tranquilizer darts on site and falling short of safety standards used at other zoos.

“The zoo knew or should have known how to protect its visitors from the killer dogs, and the fatal consequences that would likely result when ‘human prey' suddenly appeared in their territory,” Philadelphia-based attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said in a written statement.

He said an “abysmal emergency-response plan” crushed any chance for Maddox to survive. The Derkosh family wants to get an explanation for the alleged dangers and to protect others from “the same unimaginable tragedy,” Mongeluzzi added.

Neither Mongeluzzi nor the Derkosh family was available for interviews.

The exhibit closed immediately after the attack — in which one wild dog was shot to death to allow emergency access to the mauled child — and did not reopen. CEO Barbara Baker announced last month that officials had moved four of the 10 remaining wild dogs to other zoos and were in the process of moving the others, though it wasn't clear whether that process is complete.

Derkosh family attorneys listed six counts against the nonprofit zoo and its parent organization, the Zoological Society of Pittsburgh, alleging negligence, wrongful death and emotional distress. The Derkoshes are seeking a jury trial and more than $100,000 in damages, including more than $50,000 for emotional and mental injuries endured by mother Elizabeth Derkosh.

“Certainly, one would expect the damages they are expecting to recover are going to be significantly more than that,” said Mark Milsop, an attorney with the Berger and Green law firm in Washington's Landing. He called the case “a winner,” pointing especially to netting just below the elevated observation deck where Maddox fell.

The net was meant to stop debris, but not people, from falling into the enclosure.

“If you can foresee that debris would fall into your exhibit, shouldn't you foresee that people would fall in?” Milsop said. “You'd certainly expect that there would be a second barrier of some sort.”

According to the complaint, Elizabeth Derkosh lifted and held Maddox while she stood on the observation deck, trying to give him a better view of the wild dogs below. He lurched forward and slipped from her grasp, dropping onto the debris net, the complaint states. It does not state whether Elizabeth Derkosh placed the child on the railing.

Maddox bounced from the net onto the ground in the enclosure, which lacked more solid and impenetrable barriers built to contain wild dogs in other zoos, according to the complaint. Medical examiners identified more than 220 injuries on Maddox's body, it says. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. reviewed the matter and said no one would face criminal charges.

The mother tried to follow after Maddox, her only child, but was held back by another zoo visitor, according to the civil complaint.

The Department of Agriculture is running a separate investigation focusing on enclosure designs and other logistics at the zoo to determine whether zoo conditions contributed to the fatality. The agency is checking for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said she could not comment on when the review might be complete, though the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has said the dog enclosure passed muster in its earlier accreditation reviews.

The AZA said after the attack that it would review the design again. Messages seeking AZA comment on Thursday were not returned.

Staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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