Pittsburgh Zoo: Mother to blame for death of toddler mauled by African painted dogs
The mother of a toddler fatally mauled by a pack of wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is to blame for her son's death, attorneys for the Highland Park nonprofit said in a court document filed this week.
The zoo's attorneys contend Elizabeth Derkosh, 34, of Whitehall was at fault on Nov. 4 when she lifted her son, Maddox, 2, so the boy could get a better look at the African painted dogs exhibit when she knew he could fall, according to the filing in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
“The injuries and damages sustained by Maddox Derkosh, including (his) death, were caused solely by the carelessness, negligence and/or recklessness of Elizabeth Derkosh,” the document states.
The Derkosh family did not return calls for comment on Wednesday, but the family's attorney, Robert Mongeluzzi, said the zoo's legal strategy is a shameful attempt to point the finger at the victim.
“After her son was attacked and fatally mauled by wild animals at the zoo, the zoo has now launched an attack upon a grieving mother,” Mongeluzzi said. “They were warned, specifically, by two different employees, that parents would raise their children on the railing and did nothing about it.”
Elizabeth Derkosh and her husband, Jason, 37, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the zoo in May alleging the zoo “blatantly ignored” a warning from an employee about the potential danger the wild dog exhibit posed to youngsters hoisted by their parents onto or over the exhibit's railing.
Civil attorneys said the zoo's strategy is common for a case that could result in a multimillion-dollar settlement.
A jury can assign partial blame in civil cases, so the zoo's attorneys must try anything that could reduce their client's share of the responsibility, said C. William Kenny, an attorney at the law firm Berger and Green, Downtown.
“This is the zoo's way of fighting back a little bit,” Kenny said. “This is definitely a strategy to mitigate the damages. They're saying the mother is negligent, that it was foreseeable for her that lifting her child would result in injury or death, and that but for her doing that, this would never have happened.”
In their complaint, the Derkoshes acknowledged that Elizabeth Derkosh lifted her son to get a better look at the exhibit when the boy lurched forward and fell 14 feet onto a mesh net and bounced into the pen.
Zookeepers rushed to save the boy, but it was too dangerous for them to enter the yard. One especially aggressive dog was fatally shot.
An autopsy report revealed Maddox survived the fall but had no chance against the 11 dogs and bled to death. His was the first visitor death in the zoo's 114-year history.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Elizabeth Derkosh would not face criminal charges.
The African painted dogs are wild animals that hunt in packs, and as with many wild animals, they pose a danger to humans who come into contact with them, according to the zoo's filing. The zoo also says that the netting below the railing was not installed to protect people from falling into the exhibit.
The zoo admitted that it had a responsibility for the safety of its visitors, but the visitors are also responsible for their safety and had a duty to act in a “reasonable and prudent manner.”
The zoo's attorney, Dennis J. Mulvihill, did not return calls. Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said the motion is part of the next step in the legal process.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has inspected the exhibit 35 times since it opened as a cheetah enclosure in 2006. The regulatory agency has not raised concerns or violations regarding the exhibit, she said.
“Our attorneys have supplied the court with written responses regarding our position to the claims,” Gray said.
The zoo placed the dogs in quarantine for 30 days, closed the exhibit and removed the observation deck from which Maddox fell. In June, it installed a new exhibit featuring a cheetah.
Mongeluzzi said the case is moving into the discovery phase in which he expects to learn more about what zoo officials knew about the safety of the exhibit.
“We look forward to proving, in discovery and at trial, that the zoo's position is dead wrong and shameful,” he said.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- PennDOT team decides what spells trouble on vehicle license plates
- Pirates get journeyman Ishikawa off waivers; outfielder Marte injured
- McIlroy, world’s No. 1 golfer, injures ankle playing soccer
- Fayette County man injured in WV fireworks mishap
- Alvarez homer triggers winning outburst for Pirates
- Alle-Kiski farmers: Crops weather heavy rain
- Woman shot at Kennywood Park in ‘freak accident’
- La Scuola d’Italia Galileo Galilei touts Pittsburgh’s Italian heritage
- Westmoreland County on pace to surpass record for drug-related fatalities
- Crane tips over, smashes into roof of building at Pitt
- ‘Iron Dog’ draws four-legged competitors from across the region