DA looks into new evidence in mauling at Pittsburgh Zoo
Zappala doubts notes
October 25, 2013 12:03 AM
The former observation area at the Pittsburgh Zoo from which Maddox Derkosh fell into the African painted dogs exhibit.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Allegheny County district attorney said Thursday that he would look into information that the safety committee at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium reported concerns about parents holding children over the railing of the African painted dog exhibit more than six years before a fatal mauling there.
DA Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he does not believe that the four separate reports in meeting minutes from 2006 and 2007 will have any impact on his decision not to file criminal charges against any zoo personnel.
"These notes are significant on the civil side," he said. "They're not necessarily significant from a criminal standpoint."
The district attorney's office in April announced that its investigation revealed no criminal conduct by anyone associated with the zoo, and that the issue was closed unless a review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows any deficiencies that would prompt the prosecution to reconsider.
That USDA investigation is still ongoing, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall was killed Nov. 4 when he fell over the railing at the exhibit and was mauled. His mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, had been holding him, and witnesses said the little boy thrust himself out of her arms.
Mr. Zappala announced within weeks of the incident that Mrs. Derkosh would not face charges, either.
The Derkosh family filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the zoo in May, alleging that it knew -- or should have known -- of the dangers associated with the open-air section of the exhibit. The other walls had Plexiglass windows, but the section where Maddox fell had just a railing.
Earlier this week, Robert Mongeluzzi, the attorney representing the Derkoshes, filed a document in the lawsuit showing minutes from four separate committee meetings where concerns about the exhibit and children leaning -- or being dangled over -- had been raised.
Mr. Mongeluzzi further wrote that committee concerns raised at meetings were taken to high-ranking zoo officials, including president Barbara Baker and former curator of mammals Amos Morris.
Neither Mr. Morris nor Mr. Mongeluzzi could be reached Thursday.
Mr. Zappala said he plans to get the meeting minutes.
Mr. Zappala's main concern, he said, is whether the safety committee issues were presented to inspectors with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the national accrediting agency.
"The inspectors obviously saw [the opening in the exhibit] and said that it passed," he said. "If they passed on it, I'm OK with it."
But, he continued, if they were not aware of safety committee concerns, he wants to ask, "Is it important, and would it have made a difference?"
In terms of criminal liability, the burden that would have to be met to sustain charges would be whether there was criminal negligence or recklessness on the part of zoo officials -- that they knew there was a strong likelihood someone would get hurt at the exhibit, and that they purposely disregarded that.
"We want to take a look at these minutes," Mr. Zappala said. "Criminally, I don't think it makes a difference."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.