Last Tuesday, June 14, 2016, a two-year-old boy was with his family at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida when he was attacked by an alligator. The boy was playing in less than a foot of water when an almost 7 foot long alligator grabbed him and dragged him into the Seven Seas Lagoon by the popular Grand Floridian Hotel. After hours of searching, the boy’s body was found the next day less than 15 feet from where the alligator originally snatched him. An autopsy was performed, and the cause of death was determined to be drowning and traumatic injuries. Since his death, there have been many questions of liability regarding the incident. There were “No-swimming” signs posted around the beach and warnings regarding deep water and steep drop-offs, but there were no signs that warning of alligators. Now the question is can Disney be held liable for this boy’s death for having prior knowledge of these alligators and failing to warn its guests of the potential dangers?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that there are about 1.3 million alligators in Florida, most of these being found in the wild. Of these alligators, most do not cause problems, but there are time when alligators attack or can be a pest to communities. The Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP), the program responsible for dealing with alligator-related complaints, reported receiving 13,962 nuisance alligator complaints in 2015. Disney was aware of the presence of alligators in their lakes and lagoons; it even has its own wildlife-management team. One Disney grounds keeper confirmed this and also said that the gators rarely come on shore but “you should not go in the water.” The so-called Seven Seas Lagoon where the attack happened is a man made lagoon but it is connected to other bodies of water in areas packed with alligators. During the search for the boy’s body, five alligators were removed and all were euthanized to see if one of them was the gator who attacked the child.
If there is a lawsuit involved, Disney’s liability could include negligence and premises liability. Laurie Sherwood of Walsworth WFMB, LLP noted some issues Disney may face, including Disney’s duty to warn guests about the alligators, Disney’s previous knowledge and the subsequent steps it took, as well as the probability that such an event would occur. After the incident, Disney made a statement announcing that it would post alligator warning signs in addition to the “No-swimming” signs already posted. Sherwood and Steve Jaffe, managing partner of Farmer Jaffe, both agreed that these new signs would not impact a case against Disney if it does become a litigated situation. This is because in several states, including Florida, these actions are considered remedial and cannot be used to demonstrate liability. However, Jaffe also states that the resort guests have an expectation that the hotel and its surroundings are reasonably safe. Most of the guests are not from Florida and therefore do not know not to go into lakes at night. Jaffe believes that because Disney designed the lakes and knew there were alligators present, it might be enough to prove liability. He notes that Disney is not obligated to make the resort absolutely safe, just reasonably safe. It will also be difficult to claim the child is negligent (because he was only two years old) or that the parents were negligent (because they were no more than 10 feet away). Sherwood predicted Disney’s defenses, first noting this is a rare incident which affects the argument that Disney could foresee this event and also the fact that alligators are native to Florida. Sherwood thinks that even with the new information of a prior attack a few decades ago, it would likely not be sufficient in claiming liability. Both attorneys agreed that the case would not likely go to trial due to its high profile.
Fasick, Kevin, and Natalie Musumeci. “Gators Were a Known Threat at Disney Lagoon.” New York Post. N.p., 16 June 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
“Liability Questions Arise After Florida Alligator Attack.” Claims Journal News. N.p., 20 June 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
Yu, Roger. “Disney’s Liability, Prior Knowledge Questioned.” USA Today. Gannett, 19 June 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.