On the night of June 14, 2016 an alligator fatally attacked two-year-old Lane Graves as he waded in very shallow water along the shore of Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s grand Floridian Resort. Since then there has been an avalanche of opinions criticizing both the parents of this child and Disney.
As an attorney who works solely in the field of wrongful death and injury claims I couldn’t help but consider the legal implications of this sad situation. In evaluating any injury or wrongful death claim, the conduct of both Disney and the parents would be examined in the evaluation of a potential claim against Disney.
Disney had a responsibility to keep their grounds reasonably safe for its guests. If dangers exist on their property, they have a responsibility to eliminate the danger, prevent access to it by a fence or barricade or to provide a reasonable warning if the danger cannot be eliminated. They can be held responsible if they failed to identify and correct the danger, prevent access to the water or provide a reasonable warning of the danger. A warning can be in the form of a sign.
Since there were no barricades preventing access to the beach the issues for the family to prove against Disney would be their knowledge of the danger of alligators at the beach and whether they provided an adequate warning of that danger.
News reports point out there were “No Swimming” signs posted at the beach. Such signs would clearly be a form of warning. The question is whether they provided a reasonable and adequate warning of the presence of alligators to a visiting family from Nebraska who presumably had no experience with alligators. This is particularly so since Disney marketed the pleasure of basking along the beach and encouraged people to do so while visiting as their guests.
Disney apparently has a very active alligator management program which results in the removal of numerous alligators once they reach a threatening size. Like most bodies of water in Florida, Seven Seas Lagoon would be populated by alligators both large and small. Given the location of the lake it would be virtually impossible to eliminate all larger alligators capable of committing such an attack. Disney would also be aware that alligators are much more difficult to identify at night and that that they could never ensure that such a large alligator would not be near this beach. All of this would have been well known to Disney, but probably not to guests from Nebraska.
A jury would be asked to consider whether Disney’s “No Swimming” signs were an adequate warning given the knowledge they clearly would have had about the potential presence of alligators. In a trial, the parents would have the burden of proving the warning was inadequate given the gravity of the danger. The rather obvious position the family could take is that a warning against swimming is not a reasonable warning against the presence of dangerous alligators, particularly given how enticing it is for children to wade or play along a sandy lakeshore beach.
Since the tragic occurrence Disney has not only posted alligator and snake warning signs along the beach but has erected some type of barricade or fence to prevent people from entering the water. Many people would consider this an admission of responsibility by Disney. However under Florida law, when someone takes steps to correct a safety hazard or to increase the safety at a particular location, it is not admissible during trial as an admission or evidence they knew the condition was in fact unsafe.
In looking at the conduct of the parents, people have questioned why the parents would have allowed Lane to swim there in the first place. A jury would be asked to consider whether Lane was actually “swimming”. From news reports he was in quite shallow water. It probably never dawned on the parents that what he was doing would be considered “swimming” or that wading along the beach was potentially a life-threatening activity.
Some people who are familiar with the nocturnal habits of alligators have questioned why the parents would allow their child to be in or near the water at night. Since they no doubt had no experience with alligators, would they be expected to anticipate the potential danger without having been adequately warned by Disney?
From the information publicly made available, it clearly appears Disney should have known the potential danger. The question is whether their lack of alligator warning signs was a calculated marketing decision or a simple omission. A reasonable jury could clearly find Disney to have failed in their responsibility to provide a safe environment for their guests and hold them financially responsible. If the jury found that Disney failed to give an alligator warning based on financial incentives it could result in an even more explosive verdict. Given the extreme notoriety of this case it’s not likely it would ever proceed to a jury trial. This is a case that Disney clearly should find a way to settle.