A Dorchester girl who was attacked four years ago by a gorilla that escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo and terrorized the surrounding neighborhood was awarded $175,000 yesterday by a Suffolk Superior Court jury.
The jury found that five caretakers of the western lowland gorilla named Little Joe were liable for the injuries the animal inflicted on Nia Scott on Sept. 28, 2003, when she was 2 years and 9 months old. But the jury decided against awarding damages to the girl's mother, Terrasita Duarte-Scott, who was not present during the attack but said her relationship with her daughter had suffered as a result.
Duarte-Scott, who appeared disappointed by the verdict, met privately with her lawyers for about 10 minutes and then walked briskly to an elevator. On the way, she said, "They did what they thought was fair, but I'm speechless, just speechless. What I wanted to do was prove that they were negligent."
Her lawyer, Donald L. Gibson, said Duarte-Scott was courageous to bring the case to court. "And the jury, by its verdict, said this [attack] wasn't supposed to happen," he said. "But we're somewhat disappointed that the mother was not awarded damages."
At the beginning of the trial, Gibson attempted to prove to the jury that Zoo New England, the company that operates Franklin Park Zoo, was negligent in its duty to use "reasonable care to keep the animal confined" and that the keepers, the five zoo officials named in the suit, were liable for the harm the gorilla caused.
After deliberating for more than six hours over two days, the jury concluded that the zoo was not negligent when Little Joe climbed out of his enclosure and attacked Scott. But the jury ruled that zoo officials, as the keepers of a wild animal, should still compensate Scott.
The five officials named in the lawsuit include the zoo's president and chief executive officer, John Linehan, and head veterinarian, Dr. Hayley Murphy.
The attack left Scott cut and bruised. Little Joe then went on to terrorize the neighborhood near the zoo for two hours before police subdued him with tranquilizer darts. During the six-day trial, the plaintiffs' lawyers alleged that the attack inflicted long-term psychological damage, causing Nia Scott, now 6, to have nightmares, made her less outgoing, and damaged her relationship with her mother.
Gibson said the case should have a lasting impact on the way zoos around the country safeguard the public from dangerous animals. "We know Zoo New England has rethought its policies and made improvements," he said.
He would not say how much money would have been acceptable to Duarte-Scott, adding that state law prohibits attorneys from seeking a specific amount in damages.
Linehan spoke briefly outside the courtroom, saying the tropical forest exhibit has been fortified since Little Joe's escape.
"Terrasita and Nia clearly are thoughtful and wonderful people," he said. "It's sad this incident happened, but certainly the new facility will prevent it from ever happening again. We respect what the jury brought back."
Nia, who went to the zoo with family friend Courtney Roberson, testified Monday about her harrowing encounter with Little Joe.
"He hit me," she said. "He hit me with his claws. Then he dragged me and gave me stitches."
The little girl testified that she has scars in several places along her forehead and on both of her legs where Little Joe grabbed her. She also said the gorilla damaged her teeth. Roberson, who settled her own lawsuit, testified that the gorilla slapped at the child five to eight times.
Gibson said that asking Nia, a first-grader, to testify was unavoidable. "We would never gamble with a child, but it was necessary to put Nia on the stand and have her tell her story," he said.
Little Joe returned to public view last February, settling into his $2.3 million exhibit space, which has triple-layered glass and a steel mesh roof. After entering his new home, the imposing 14-year-old eyed the people watching through a new glass viewing wall and ran about 30 feet to slam his 400-pound frame against the glass. Zoo officials said such behavior signaled Joe was glad to be back.