Hot Docs: Zoo responsible for death of two-year-old killed by African wild dogs, lawsuit claims

June 6, 2013

African wild dogsIt’s never a good thing when a seemingly innocuous activity leads to a lawsuit.  And it’s even worse when that lawsuit is over the death of a two-year old child.

Unfortunately, that’s the case with a lawsuit filed last month in Pennsylvania.

The “seemingly innocuous activity” that is the subject of this lawsuit was a trip to the zoo.  The suit’s plaintiffs, Jason and Elizabeth Derkosh, lost their only child, two-year-old Maddox Derkosh during the visit.

The fateful trip occurred on November 4, 2012.  Elizabeth arrived with Maddox at approximately 9:45 a.m. that morning to the Pittsburgh Zoo.

After attending a zoo-sponsored education class for children, Elizabeth and Maddox walked through the zoo together, stopping to view different animals at various exhibits.

At about 11:45 a.m., the two stopped at the African wild dogs exhibit, “widely considered the most efficient killers in the African plains.”

At the time, the exhibit consisted of an observation structure with a covered deck.  The structure was elevated directly above the ground where a pack of African wild dogs roam.

As seen from the photos below, the entire observation deck was enclosed except the center area, designed for zoogoers to view the animals.

The only protective device in place around this exposed opening was a narrow cantilevered netting structure directly below the opening (see photos below).

Derkosh 2

Derkosh 3

Elizabeth and Maddox approached the exposed opening, and Elizabeth lifted Maddox up with the intent of holding him in her arms so that he could get a better view of the African wild dogs below.

As she was lifting and holding Maddox, however, he lurched forward and slipped out of her grasp.  He then fell through the unprotected opening and into netting below.

Unfortunately, the netting did little to stop him from landing in the wild dogs’ habitat: when Maddox’s body hit the netting, he bounced out of the structure and plunged into the habitat just a few feet below.  There is apparently at least one witness to corroborate this story (i.e. that Maddox lunged, rather than being dropped – accidentally or otherwise – by Elizabeth).

The pack of African wild dogs approached and attacked Maddox.  Elizabeth attempted to enter the exhibit to protect Maddox, but was physically restrained by another zoogoer.

Thus, she was “forced to watch helplessly as the African wild dogs savagely mauled and literally tore apart her son in front of her.”  Maddox was pronounced dead at 12:01 p.m.

The Derkosh’s lawsuit lists several causes of action related to negligence (including negligent infliction of emotional distress) and wrongful death.

The complaint is replete with allegations on how the zoo was negligent, and several examples stand out more than others.

First, Lou Nene, an employee of the Zoo, allegedly warned the Zoo that “parents would frequently and routinely lift their children up to see through” the [open portion] of the viewing window in the African wild dog exhibit.

Nene stated in a local TV news interview broadcast November 28, 2012 that he witnessed this occur “at least ten times a day.”

According to the complaint, when Nene told his boss of his observations and his fears and “concerns that a child could fall into the African wild dog exhibit,” he was told, “This is not your concern, go back to work.”

That’s pretty damning evidence of the Zoo’s awareness of its negligently maintaining an unsafe condition on its property.

But how do we know that the maintenance of the condition was negligent?

The complaint provides examples (with photos) from a lot of other zoos – 16, to be exact – across the country with safer designs for their respective African wild dog exhibits.

There’s a lot more to the complaint on the Zoo’s alleged negligence than I could get into here, but it’s also interesting to note that the Zoo employees that responded to the emergency were equipped with tranquilizer guns that were either unloaded or contained blank darts (seriously?).

If the exhibit’s observation area proves to indeed be unsafe, and the Zoo turns out to actually have notice provided by its employee Nene (which seems to be the case), the Zoo’s best defense is contributory negligence.

However, such a defense – trying to place blame on the mother for her child’s death – would be a poor choice to use in front of a jury.

Considering all of the bad press the Zoo has received already, it wouldn’t be wise to prolong litigation, so settlement would likely be the best option.

Hopefully, this case garners enough attention nationally to put other zoos on notice and prevent other families from sharing in the Derkosh’s misery.