Disney theme parks have built a reputation as a carefree, family-friendly destination that is a dream come true for any child.
But recently, those dreams turned into a nightmare at the Orlando park when a 2-year-old boy was snatched by an alligator in a shallow lagoon near the resort where his family was staying. His father, just footsteps away, wrestled with the animal for his son, but he was unable to free him. The boy’s body was found after 16-hour search. Several alligators were also killed.
Now, those of us in the legal field know that Disney is almost certainly facing a liability lawsuit in this scenario. Unless the theme park issues a swift and fair settlement to the boy’s family (who as of this writing had not filed any notice of claim), this could turn into a protracted and ugly legal battle – accompanied by all the negative publicity that comes with that.
Essentially, this comes down to a case of premises liability. The alligator approached in an area of the resort that was beach-like. It was a man-made lagoon, but there was sand and a shore and families were invited to stay seated on the shore to watch an outdoor movie on a projection screen. The boy was wading in 6-to-12-inches of water at about 9 p.m.
Florida has about 1.3 million alligators statewide. It isn’t known how many are present in Disney’s 200 acres, but they are generally known to live in pretty much all freshwater bodies in the state. Wildlife officials say alligator attacks are not common. However, the resort was reportedly on notice from staffers that alligators at the site were a concern and that there were even reports of people feeding the creatures, which is illegal because it causes them to lose their fear of humans and also associate humans with food.
There were “No Swimming” signs posted on the property, but nowhere were parents warned of alligators. Just based on what we know about the facts of this case, our Palm Beach injury lawyers would opine this type of warning isn’t enough. Here, we’re talking about a situation in which it was known there were dangerous wild animals on the property near where children – with no way to defend themselves – would be.
Disney owed the highest duty of care to this family under the law because these were guests who were invited onto the property for the commercial benefit of the company. That means the company had a duty to warn families of all known or likely dangers and to protect them from dangers that were known or knowable.
There is speculation that Disney did not install fences or other barriers that might have prevented this horrific incident because it might have lessened the overall aesthetic of the park. But it’s expected in the wake of this tragedy the park will be making major renovations to the shoreline of this and other resorts. Post-accident changes to a property to increase safety generally can’t be used against a defendant in court to prove any wrongdoing.
In our experience, a defendant of this size with a situation of this magnitude is probably going to want to settle the case quickly and quietly.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Gator tragedy leaves Disney facing legal nightmare, say experts, June 16, 2016, By Christina Corbin, FOX News
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Wheeling Park Commission v. Dattoli – Premises Liability Fall Case Falls Flat, June 19, 2016, Florida Child Injury Attorney Blog