Court won't cut claims in wrongful death case at Pittsburgh zoo

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Minutes before a 2-year-old boy was killed at the African painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium last year, he had been inside the monkey house.

An attorney representing the parents of Maddox Derkosh said Tuesday that the little boy had an interaction with a monkey there, in which he placed his hands up on the glass, and the animal approached the glass from the other side and put its hands up against the boy's.

That, attorney Robert Mongeluzzi said, is likely the reason why Maddox lurched out of his mother's arms and through an opening in the display of the African painted dogs on Nov. 4.

"She did not take her son and put him on the railing and stand him there," Mr. Mongeluzzi said. "She was picking him up when he lurched forward and fell from her grasp.

"You can imagine the horror of being there and witnessing this is beyond what any person can bear. She's devastated."

The lawsuit against the zoo, filed by Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh in May, is not about money, the attorney said.

"This is not a family that's looking to put the zoo out of business," Mr. Mongeluzzi said. "That's not who they are. They want to make sure this doesn't happen again -- not at this zoo or at any other zoo in the world."

The attorney made his statements Tuesday following a motions hearing on the case before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr. Attorneys for the zoo were seeking to have several counts of the wrongful death complaint thrown out, including one asserting strict liability on the part of the zoo and another in which the Derkoshes are seeking punitive damages.

Judge Lutty denied most of the zoo's motions, although he did agree to have stricken from the underlying complaint photographs that were included of other African painted dog exhibits around the United States.

Daniel Rivetti, who represents the zoo, argued that the strict liability claim should not go forward because there is no "abnormal risk to the public" by a zoo offering people the chance to view wild animals.

"Public zoos exist solely for the benefit of the community," Mr. Rivetti said. "Public zoos ... do not expose the public to inordinate risk ... therefore strict liability doesn't apply."

But Mr. Mongeluzzi disagreed. Instead, he argued that the court must weigh the factors involved, and that at this early stage in the case -- there has been no exchange of discovery or depositions -- that cannot be done.

The value of the zoo to the community, he said, must be weighed against the "high probability of harm to others at an unprotected area through which a child could and did fall."

Further, Mr. Mongeluzzi said, the zoo had been warned by an employee that parents repeatedly, day after day, held their children up to the open railing to get a better view of the exhibit, putting the children at risk.

"The zoo was warned of the very hazard that occurred," he said. "The employee was curtly dismissed. He was told by his boss ... 'this is not your concern. go back to work.'"

That, the attorney continued, shows recklessness, which warrants punitive damages. "I don't think there is a better case of reckless indifference possible," he said.

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Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. First Published August 6, 2013 4:45 AM


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