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Pittsburgh Zoo: Mother to blame for death of toddler mauled by African painted dogs

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 4:36 p.m.
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium removed the observation deck at the African painted dogs exhibit “out of respect for the community” and the family of the 2-year-old who was fatally mauled when he fell from the platform into the yard below.
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Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall was killed Nov. 4, 2012, when he fell into the African painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

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 abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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