Attorney says Pittsburgh Zoo was aware of danger at dog exhibit before fatal attack
October 24, 2013 1:21 AM
Joann Vaughn of Mt. Lebanon and her boys, Jack, 6, and Walker, 4, visit the entrance to the overlook of the African painted dog exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in late 2012.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Officials at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium were put on notice about the potential danger of the African painted dogs exhibit at least four separate times more than five years before a toddler was mauled to death there last year.
In a document filed this week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said that the zoo's safety committee talked about issues at the exhibit four times in 2006 and 2007, and each of those discussions was recorded in minutes of those meetings.
Further, he wrote that committee concerns were regularly reported to "high-ranking" zoo officials, including Barbara Baker, the zoo president, and Amos Morris, the former curator of mammals.
In an interview with the Post-Gazette in December, Ms. Baker said she was unaware of any adults lifting children up to stand atop the guardrail at the exhibit or any concerns from zoo staff about such behavior since the exhibit opened.
Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh, the parents of Maddox, filed a lawsuit against the zoo in May for wrongful death and negligence stemming from the incident Nov. 4.
Maddox, who was 2, was killed when he slipped from his mother's arms and fell over the railing of the observation platform and into the exhibit of 11 dogs.
One of the animals on display was killed by a police officer during the attack, and the remaining 10 were sent to other facilities. The exhibit never reopened.
In September, the zoo filed a cross-claim against the victim's mother, alleging that her son's death should be attributed to the "carelessness, negligence and/or recklessness of Elizabeth Derkosh."
According to the most recent court filing by Mr. Mongeluzzi, meeting minutes from the zoo safety committee, which met monthly, show the members held multiple discussions about the painted dog exhibit.
The committee, according to the filing, "reflected the makeup of employees who incurred the most work place incidents (keepers, grounds and maintenance)."
At a committee meeting Aug. 16, 2006, the minutes noted that one side of the exhibit was open and "a visitor was seen dangling a child over the exhibit through the opening."
At a committee meeting Feb. 2, 2007, according to the minutes, "a docent saw a person holding a child through the open side of the wild dog exhibit deck, trying to bring dogs over. A pane of Plexiglass may have to be installed."
At another meeting May 31, 2007, the minutes said, "Guests are dangling children over the railing at the wild dog exhibit."
And at another meeting less than a month later, on June 21, 2007, the meeting minutes refer to PMA Companies, an insurance carrier. The minutes state, "Wild Dogs Exhibit -- Children hanging over ledge. The exhibit has always been open -- suggestion by Lynn -- maybe PMA can make a recommendation on what to do with the open exhibit ..."
From the meeting minutes of July 20, 2007, the committee learned that "wild dog exhibit will be reviewed by ... Gene Mattis from PMA during walk-through in September. Gene will make recommendation."
Mr. Mattis, whose Linkedin online profile lists him as a risk control manager for PMA Insurance Group, said he could not comment on the statement or his work with the zoo when contacted Wednesday.
In his court filing, Mr. Mongeluzzi said those meeting minutes served "as actual notice" to zoo officials that the open viewing area was a safety hazard, yet no modifications were made.
Tracy Gray, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said in a statement Wednesday that the zoo's safety committee is very active.
"The committee is state certified and reviews all areas of the park. After careful inspection it was determined that the exhibit continuously exceeded the safety requirements mandated by the USDA and AZA," she said.
Tom Kline, a well-known Philadelphia plaintiff's attorney, said the discovery of the safety committee minutes is damaging to the zoo's position in the lawsuit.
"The claim on behalf of the parents is materially strengthened by notice of an ultra dangerous condition which existed and the foreseeability that parents had a natural tendency to lift their children into what was a dangerous trap," Mr. Kline said. "The fact the zoo has a hazardous situation and didn't take all precautions to avoid what would be a normal behavior by untrained people, who are business invitees to the zoo, militates against their claim that the mother was somehow responsible for this tragic death."
Mr. Kline said the zoo should evaluate its position, and the likelihood a jury would exonerate it "for putting a mother and the rest of the public into a dangerous situation.
"This whole tragedy could have been avoided by having the kind of screen or fencing that would prevent the mother from holding her son up for a better view like the zoo knew other parents had done before."
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published October 23, 2013 3:11 PM