Phila. firm sues Pittsburgh Zoo on behalf of couple whose toddler was mauled to death by wild dogs

By Jon Campisi | May 29, 2013

The fatal mauling of a young child by a pack of African wild dogs at a western

Pennsylvania zoo this past winter that made national headlines is now the subject of a civil suit filed by the toddler’s parents.

Attorneys with the high-power Philadelphia personal injury law firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky announced this week that they filed suit in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Jason and Elizabeth Derkosh, whose 2-year-old, Maddox Derkosh, was killed after he fell into an exhibit housing the wild animals.

The incident occurred on Nov. 4, 2012, at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“Elizabeth and Jason are loving parents. They still mourn,” Saltz Mongeluzzi partner Robert Mongeluzzi said in a statement provided by the law firm. “They still hurt and will hurt the rest of their lives. They deeply appreciate the support of the greater Pittsburgh community and they are determined to do what they can to ensure that what happened to their only child can never happen again at the Pittsburgh Zoo, or at any zoo.”

The lawsuit, which names as defendants the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and the Zoological Society of Pittsburgh, alleges that the defendants “blatantly ignored” an employee’s warning regarding the perceived safety inadequacies of the African wild dog exhibit, specifically that there were concerns about a child being able to fall into the space housing the animals.

That employee, identified in the complaint as Lou Nene, had said in an interview with a Pittsburgh television station that he would routinely watch as mothers would hoist their children up above the “inadequately protected railing” and opening at the exhibit at least 10 times a day, according to the plaintiffs’ firm.

Nene, the lawsuit claims, warned his supervisors that a child could possibly fall into the wild dog exhibit, but that his concerns were dismissed.

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs contend that the “litany of institutional lapses in fundamental exhibit design, safety, and security … caused Maddox’s death.”

“The filing marks just the beginning of the legal process to demonstrate that the death of Maddox Derkosh was absolutely preventable and that the Zoo failed in its responsibility to protect Maddox – and every other visitor to the wild dog exhibit – from harm,” Mongeluzzi said in his statement.

The firm criticized zoo management for allegedly dismissing Nene’s warnings, and even going as far as to reprimand him by instructing him to “go back to work,” because the issue was not of his concern, the complaint states.

The lawsuit states that Maddox fell into the wild dog exhibit at about 9:45 in the morning on Nov. 4 as his mother was holding him up to see the animals through a viewing opening.

Elizabeth Maddox had taken here child to the zoo on that day to attend “zoo school,” which is a conservation education class for children regularly offered at the zoo.

The two had been walking around the zoo to check out exhibits after finishing the program when the tragedy occurred, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs claim that the defendants knew, or should have known, how to adequately protect its visitors from the “killer dogs,” and that fatal consequences would likely result when “human prey” suddenly appeared in the animals’ territory.

The complaint asserts claims of wrongful death and negligence against the defendants.

A copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in Pittsburgh on May 23, was posted to the law firm’s website.

The African wild dogs that killed young Maddox are among the most ferocious predators in the wild, according to the plaintiffs’ firm, and are widely considered to be the most efficient killers in the African plains.

In the wild, the animals reportedly prey on animals many times their size, including antelope, zebras and wildebeests.

The plaintiffs claim in their suit that the only unprotected area of the wild dog exhibit is the open center viewing area, under which is a narrow cantilevered netting structure.

No other protective devices, barriers or structural components are in place to prevent someone from falling over the railing and into the habitat portion of the exhibit, the suit states.

Eleven of the African wild dogs were reportedly in the exhibit at the time Maddox fell into the pit.

The fall occurred after Elizabeth was lifting her son and holding him up to see into the exhibit, at which time the toddler lurched forward and slipped out of her grasp, falling through the opening and into the netting below.

Maddox then bounced out of the netting and plunged below into the exhibit.

The lawsuit offers gruesome details of the incident, saying the child was “conscious, alert and aware of his surroundings” at the time he hit the ground, and only died after being ferociously attacked and mauled by the animals.

The boy’s mother attempted to enter the exhibit, but was restrained by another zoo visitor.

“She was forced to watch helplessly as the African wild dogs savagely mauled and literally tore apart her son in front of her,” the complaint reads.

The complaint lists in detail the extensive critical injuries young Maddox suffered during the attack. The injuries allegedly totaled more than 220.

The boy was pronounced dead just after noon the day of the attack.

The suit contains additional counts of strict liability and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs seek more than $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, as well as delay damages and costs.

The suit was filed by attorneys Robert Mongeluzzi, Andrew Duffy and Benjamin Baer.

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