It didn't take long for speculation regarding possible litigation to start swirling after a 2-year-old was fatally attacked by an alligator at a Disney resort in Orlando this week. In a similar case four years ago in Georgia, the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the gated community where an 83-year-old woman was killed by an alligator.
In a 4-3 decision, the state's high court said the Landings community on Skidaway Island near Savannah and its homeowners association could not be held liable for the fatal attack on Oct. 5, 2007, AJC courts reporter Bill Rankin reported at the time.
Williams had been house-sitting for her vacationing daughter and son-in-law and was attacked by an 8-foot alligator while out for a walk, looking for her daughter's dog, one night. A trapper found and killed the alligator the next day and found Williams' limbs in its stomach.
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The family sued, contending the Landings should have done more to warn and protect residents and guests. When the development carved out a system of lagoons and waterways to drain water from low-lying areas, it also created a perfect habitat for indigenous alligators, the suit said.
But Justice Harold Melton, writing for the court's majority, cited testimony that showed Williams had once seen an alligator on the side of a road at the Landings.
"The record shows that Williams knew that the wild alligators were dangerous, saying herself that she would not want to be anywhere near them," Melton wrote at the time. "Nonetheless, Williams chose to go for a walk at night near a lagoon in a community in which she knew alligators were present."
This showed that Williams "either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so, " Melton wrote.
The Supreme Court's ruling reversed a decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, which had allowed the case to go forward.
Justice Robert Benham, writing in dissent at the time, said the case should be heard by a jury that should be allowed to decide whether Williams knew large and aggressive alligators were living on the premises and in the nearby lagoon.
The Landings Association had an advertised policy that said it removed alligators that were at least seven feet long or aggressive toward people and pets. But the Landings did not patrol or inspect the lagoons; instead, it relied on residents and employees to report such alligators. It also did not post warning signs, Benham noted.
Although there was testimony that Williams had seen at least one alligator, there had been prior court findings that there was no "competent" evidence showing she knew there were alligators larger than seven feet in the area or any living in the lagoon, Benham wrote.
Melton countered that Williams knew the risks. "A reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, " he wrote.
At Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, where the Tuesday night attack happened, "no swimming" signs are posted but there's no verbiage mentioning alligators, legal commentators have noted. The area where the child was taken was a sandy, man-made "beach," and numerous parents have since posted photos of their kids playing right where the gator struck.
“Here’s a picture of my kids playing in the same Disney resort lagoon where a child was attacked by an alligator,” parenting blogger Kristen Howerton wrote in a post meant to encourage empathy for the parents who just lost their son. “And yep – they waded into the water some too.”
Disney closed its resort beaches after the attack and has said it will install alligator warning signs. Workers also have installed a fence blocking access to the area where the attack occurred.