The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium should have known its African painted dogs exhibit was dangerous before a 2-year-old boy fell in and was mauled to death in November, according to a lawsuit the boy's family filed Thursday.
The civil suit was filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh, whose son, Maddox, was killed after he lurched forward and fell out of his mother's grip and over the exhibit's railing Nov. 4. The boy fell into a safety net below the railing, but bounced out of the netting and into the exhibit, where he was attacked by the dogs.
The Pittsburgh Zoological Society, which owns and operates the private nonprofit zoo, also was named as a defendant.
In a statement, attorney Robert Mongeluzzi said the Whitehall family asked attorneys to find out why the zoo had an unsafe exhibit, which debuted in the fall of 2006. The 41-page lawsuit details "the litany of institutional lapses in fundamental exhibit design, safety, and security that caused Maddox's death."
"The Zoo knew or should have known how to protect its visitors from the killer dogs, and the fatal consequences that would likely result when 'human prey' suddenly appeared in their territory," he said in the statement.
The family is asking for damages in excess of $50,000 on each of six counts, citing wrongful death, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.
The zoo formally closed the exhibit in April and sent the dogs to other zoos.
The Allegheny County district attorney's office reviewed the incident and said it found no wrongdoing by the zoo and that no criminal charges were warranted.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoos mainly for animal care and welfare issues, said the incident remains under investigation and declined to say how long the review could last.
In an email, zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray wrote, "We are unable to comment on any pending legal case."
The Derkosh family could not be reached for comment.
The exhibit railing presented a hazard because it was unprotected and too low, and families often lifted children so they could better see the exhibit, and zoo officials were aware of that, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit noted that in a Nov. 28 interview with KDKA-TV, a zoo employee, Lou Nene, said he told his boss he saw mothers place children on or above the railing "at least 10" times a day and feared for their safety. The lawsuit claims his boss, the zoo's curator of horticulture, Frank Pizzi, and other officials ignored the concerns.
In April, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, Barbara Baker, denied that zoo staff had raised questions about the safety of the painted dogs exhibit observation deck before Maddox's death.
"At the time of Maddox's fall," according to the lawsuit, "... the protection devices, guards and rails, and/or the intended safety netting immediately below the opening, were insufficient, defective, and inadequate to prevent falls into this exhibit."
Mr. Mongeluzzi also criticized the zoo's actions in his statement, saying the boy's "chance of survival was diminished by the Zoo's abysmal emergency response plan, which included blank and useless tranquilizer darts."
Staff used dummy tranquilizers to scare the animals because loaded tranquilizer darts are harmful to humans, and they did not want to take a chance on further hurting the boy, Ms. Baker has said.
The lawsuit also featured photos and remarks about African wild dog exhibits at other zoos across the country with various protections in place to safeguard visitors.
First Published May 23, 2013 5:00 PM