Pittsburgh Zoo settles lawsuit with family of mauled boy

The parents of a 2-year-old boy who was mauled to death in 2012 at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium have agreed to settle a lawsuit they filed against the zoo.

The parties have agreed to confidentiality, and no details of the settlement were available.

It was approved by Judge Ronald Folino of Allegheny County Common Please Court and docketed Monday morning. The one-page order also noted that "the proposed distribution is approved."

Maddox Derkosh was killed when he slipped from his mother's arms at the African painted dog exhibit on Nov. 4, 2012, falling over the railing of the observation platform and into the yard of 11 dogs.

His parents, Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh, sued the zoo last year alleging wrongful death and negligence.

In September, the zoo filed a cross-claim against Elizabeth Derkosh, alleging that Maddox's death should be attributed to her "carelessness, negligence and/or recklessness."

Seth Rosenfeld, who represented the Derkosh family, said he could not comment on the settlement.

Dennis Mulvihill, who represented the zoo, could not be reached, nor could a spokeswoman there.

The African painted dog exhibit, which opened in 2006, was closed immediately after the incident, and officials announced in April 2013 that the 10 remaining dogs -- one was killed by a responding police officer -- would be sent to other facilities.

The Allegheny County district attorney's office conducted a review and found no wrongdoing, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February levied a fine of $4,550 for failing to have sufficient distance and barriers between the animals and general public, as well as a separate penalty when an inspector noticed cockroaches on the bars of the orangutan enclosures.

John Gismondi, a prominent plaintiffs' attorney in Pittsburgh, couldn't speculate on what financial terms might be included in the zoo settlement, but he said that among the things to be considered is the potential lifetime earnings Maddox would have accumulated.

It is difficult to assign a loss value for someone so young, he said, because it is unknown what educational level or career path Maddox may have taken.

Typically, in those circumstances, Mr. Gismondi said, attorneys will seek out a forensic economist to create a report based on Department of Labor statistics.

Those would provide an average lifetime earning potential for a white male who graduated from high school, college or with a master's degree, and then it would be up to a jury to choose which one, if any, to use.

But economic loss is not the only factor in such a case, Mr. Gismondi continued.

If the case were to go to a jury, the panel would also consider whether there was conscious pain and suffering, and in Elizabeth Derkosh's case, compensation for her as a witness for negligent infliction of emotional distress, he said.

Among the things that may have gone in favor of the plaintiffs in the case, Mr. Gismondi said, were meeting minutes found by the Derkosh family's attorney, showing that the zoo's safety committee had heard concerns about the exhibit four times in 2006 and 2007 -- including reports that parents had been seen holding their children over the exhibit. One note said that a pane of Plexiglass may have to be installed to remedy the situation.

"That proves prior notice," Mr. Gismondi said.

There had been no docket entries in the civil case since that document was filed by the Derkoshes' attorney in October until the Monday settlement agreement.

He said that the two sides were likely exchanging documents as part of discovery and possibly doing depositions during those several months.

The time frame for the settlement was "very typical."

Mr. Gismondi said there was a lot at stake for both sides in going to trial -- and a lot of risks, as well.

"You have to be aware of the fact the zoo, as an institution, is generally liked by people," he said. "There is some reserve of good will the zoo would benefit from."

Marc Jampole, who runs a Downtown public relations firm, said the settlement is not likely to change the community's perception over what happened.

"Those opinions have already been set, and because of the way this has been handled, that's not going to change," he said.

"What's good for the zoo is that this is over. It puts closure on it."

He called the zoo's counterclaim against Elizabeth Derkosh a bad move from a public relations standpoint.

"You're just piling it on," he said. "When somebody loses a child in that way, the zoo didn't come off well suing her -- even if they had a case."

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published June 2, 2014 10:25 AM


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