Last year a two-year old boy was playing in one foot of water in a small lagoon at a Disney resort in Florida. The boy was not far into the water, but was standing on the shoreline. There were no fences, no signs warning of alligators, but only a “no swimming” sign nearby. The boy’s parents were standing close to where their son was playing. Seemingly out of nowhere an alligator attacked the boy. His father immediately tried to get the alligator to let go of his son, but the strength of the animal was too great for human hands. The bereaved parents of the little boy said early on that they did not plan to take legal action against Disney. Instead, they turned their attention to healing and began the Lane Thomas Foundation to support families whose children are in need of organ transplant. Disney built a small lighthouse statue on the property to memorialize Lane and to bring awareness to the work of the Foundation.
For some time now it has been uncertain whether Disney knew about alligators on the property where the little boy lost his life. According to a recent Washington Post article, Disney knew a great deal. Hundreds of alligators had been removed from that resort over the years and several only a short time before the boy was attacked. Had the family brought a lawsuit for the boy’s fatal injuries, it is very likely that Disney would have been held liable for the death of their son given their prior and superior knowledge of the premises and their failure to warn guests of the danger. Disney likely would have settled the litigation in any event, since the publicity would have been, and was, harmful to Disney and damaging to its reputation.
But the question remains, what is the duty of a property owner to warn and to protect against such injuries or death? In Georgia, the case of Landings Association, Inc. v. Williams, 291 Ga. 397, 397-98, 728 S.E.2d 577, 579 (2012) dealt with an alligator attack in a residential development on the Georgia coast. The area had been inhabited by alligators prior to the building of the development. An elderly mother staying at her children’s home, went for a walk one evening and was later found dead, with catastrophic injuries to her body. The alligator that killed her was also found later. In that case, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that the property was so well-known by the public to have had alligators on site for years, the land owner could not be held liable for the death of the woman.