The parents of a 2-year-old boy who was fatally mauled after falling into a wild African dogs exhibit last fall filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, claiming officials had ample warning that parents routinely lifted children onto a rail overlooking the exhibit so they could see better.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Jason and Elizabeth Derkosh seeks unspecified damages in the Nov. 4 death of their son, Maddox. The boy fell from a wooden railing after his mother lifted him up to get a better look at the painted dogs.
"We now know, and the complaint details, that the Zoo's management was warned, before the tragedy, by at least one employee, that parents would lift their children to see through the viewing enclosure 'at least ten' times every day," said Philadelphia Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, an expert in construction site accidents and other accidental deaths.
"Rather than thanking their employee for bringing this hazard to their attention, and then correcting it, the Zoo curtly reprimanded him and told him, 'This is not your concern, go back to work,'" Mongeluzzi said.
The bespectacled boy, who had vision issues, became the only visitor in the zoo's 116-year history to die when he unexpectedly lunged out of his mother's grasp atop the wooden railing and into a net meant to catch falling debris and trash, bouncing from it and down into the dogs' enclosure about 10 feet below.
According to the lawsuit, Elizabeth Derkosh tried to climb into the exhibit after her son, but was restrained by another zoo visitor.
"She was forced to watch helplessly as the African wild dogs savagely mauled and literally tore apart her son in front of her," according to the Allegheny County Common Pleas lawsuit filed by Mongeluzzi.
The boy suffered more than 220 injuries, mostly bites, and bled to death in the attack which included the "evisceration of his organs of the chest, abdomen and pelvis," the lawsuit said.
A zoo spokeswoman did not immediately comment.
"Elizabeth and Jason have asked us to find out why the Zoo had an unsafe exhibit, why they ignored warnings from their own employee regarding the very danger that killed Maddox and to ensure that no other family has to suffer the same unimaginable tragedy," Mongeluzzi said in the statement.
The lawsuit cites examples from at least 16 other U.S. zoos which use glass enclosures, wire fencing or other methods that allow children to view African painted dogs without risk of falling into the exhibit.
After the boy's death, the Pittsburgh zoo closed the observation deck, then eventually decided to move the 10 dog to three other American zoos. One of the 11 animals in the exhibit when the boy was mauled was killed by crews attempting to rescue the boy.
Zoo President Dr. Barbara Baker said last month that the exhibit was being closed because zoo staff and surrounding community still "need time to heal" from the boy's death.
Although the county district attorney has determined there was no criminal culpability on behalf of the boy's mother or zoo officials, reviews by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums were continuing.