By now, most of you have read the tragic, heartbreaking story about the 2-year-old boy who was grabbed by an alligator and pulled into the water at Walt Disney’s Grand Floridian resort in Orlando.
One of the secondary questions that has likely been thought or discussed is, what liability, if any, does Disney have as result of this tragedy.
The law generally states that the “duty” (responsibility) owed by a landowner to a person, depends on that person’s legal status on the land. For example, if someone is trespassing on your land, the duty you owe to them is much different from what you owe someone you’ve invited onto your property.
The Graves family (the boy’s family) would be considered an “invitee” on Disney’s property. They were invited to be on the property and they paid to stay there.
Florida law says that the owner or operator of the property has to maintain it in a reasonably safe condition and correct or warn of the dangers that the invitee knew or should have known about and which the property owner did not or should not have known had they exercised reasonable care and diligence.
Danny Cevallos, a legal analyst for CNN wrote an article discussing this issue. He points out that “whether or not Disney fulfilled its duty to the child and his family doesn’t just depend on their status as “invitees.” It’s also determined by the legal status of the “hidden danger” — in this case, the alligator.” He goes on to explain an area of law that is not commonly discussed, known as “ferae naturae.” He states that under this legal doctrine, Florida law does not require a landowner to anticipate the presence of harm from wild animals. As with most rules, there are exceptions. Cevallos gives the following example, “if a resort had an alligator on a leash tied to a pole in a petting zoo, that’s going to impose liability in a way that an alligator born free in a swamp adjacent to a hotel would not.”
The ferae naturae doctrine does not provide complete immunity to a property owner in a situation like this. Florida courts have held that landowners may still be liable if they “know or should know of an unreasonable risk of harm posed by an animal on their premises, and cannot expect patrons to realize the danger or guard against it.”
The liability for Disney in this tragic situation will depend on a lot of factors, including what, if anything, did Disney know about the presence of alligators in the lagoon and what warning, if any did they give their invitees? Numerous articles have stated that there were no signs posted specifically regarding the presence of alligators. These are all things the trier of fact (usually a jury, but sometimes a judge) would have to determine in a trial. However, the likely reality is that Disney will quietly pay a settlement to the family (likely a confidential amount) and this will never go to trial.