Thursday, June 6, 2013
Back in November, a horrible tragedy occurred at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium when a two-year-old boy fell into a wild dog exhibit and was mauled to death. In late May, the parents filed a wrongful death action against the zoo. The last zoo mauling case I recall was in San Francisco on Christmas Day 2007, when a tiger named Tatiana escaped and killed one person while wounding two others.
It appears (though there is a bit of contrary authority) that Pennsylvania does not follow the traditional rule of strict liability for wild animals; thus the parents must prove negligence. Governmental immunity is often an issue in these cases, but this zoo is private (despite the name). If the zoo were owned by a municipality, there would be no recovery; the code explicitly states: "Damages shall not be recoverable...on account of any injury caused by wild animals...." 42 Pa.C.S.A. 8542(b)(8). There are cases on point for injuries by a dolphin and a wolf.
Obviously the facts will have to be developed, but there is an allegation of a warning by a zoo employee that a child might fall into the enclosure before the death occurred. There are further allegations that rescue efforts were hindered by unloaded or blank tranquilizer guns. The zoo will certainly pursue a comparative negligence defense. This is a case that should settle. From the parents' perspective, reliving this tragedy in depositions and a trial would be traumatic. The zoo runs the risk of a large judgment (I think it would be extremely difficult to convince jurors that the mother was more responsible than the zoo for the tragedy, as would be required by PA's 50% comparative negligence statute) and bad publicity.
Adam Smeltz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has published a series of stories on the case:
Pittsburgh zoo mauling case hinges on liability (quoting me)