Tragic. Heart Breaking. Preventable. Those are the words that come to mind while scrolling through my newsfeed this week. The story certainly hits close to home. I am a parent of a 4 year old and a two year old, I live on a lake frequented by alligators, and I take my kids to Walt Disney World several times a year. It is hard to not stop and think about how easily something like this could happen…and how easily this could have been prevented. Sadly, this horrific loss for the Graves family will likely turn into litigation against The Walt Disney Company. Certainly, there is no dollar amount that could quantify or compensate the Graves family for the pain and suffering they will endure for the rest of their lives. Yet, there is blame to levy against Disney.
No, Disney is not at fault for the (now 5) alligators navigating their way into the Seven Seas Lagoon. But warning its guests of a dangerous condition on the premises is one of the basic tenets of premise liability. A landowner has a duty to warn of known, concealed, dangerous conditions. This duty is heightened when the landowner has superior knowledge of the condition to that of its invitee. This is central Florida, and one could (and should) assume that every body of water has the potential for the presence of alligators. However, the degree to which that constructive knowledge is imputed certainly varies depending on who the person is. For example, I am a native Floridian and I grew up with the knowledge of the dangers of murky water. But a family from Nebraska may have not had that type of exposure. Disney most certainly knew, or should have known, that the lakes on its premises contained a hidden danger.
Disney cannot play dumb on this one. Reports are now coming to light that only a few weeks earlier, a British family was chased by an alligator at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort while watching the fireworks show. The Beach at the Polynesian also sits on the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made body of water that separates the Magic Kingdom from the luxury resorts. San Diego attorney David Hiden told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that last year he whisked his son to safety at Disney’s Coronado Springs after a gator approached the boy playing in calf-deep water. Then Hiden saw a second gator nearby. Hiden said a hotel manager called one of them a “resident pet” and seemed unconcerned.
Earlier this year, the photograph above was taken at the very same lake where this most recent tragedy occurred. Disney’s Contemporary resort can be seen in the background. Again, Disney will not be able to claim they did not know about the presence of alligators on their property.
As I stated above, Disney is not to blame for the existence of these animals. However, it is Disney’s failure to adequately warn its guests of the dangers that got it in this situation. Merely posting a sign that says “No Swimming Please” does not properly put on notice the hundreds of thousands of visitors who are not familiar with Florida’s wildlife dangers. The Graves family’s attorney will likely argue that Disney intentionally omitted references to alligators so that its guests would not be scared away. The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress has a similar lagoon and is located just a few miles from the scene of the attack, but Hyatt had the foresight to warn its guests of the hidden dangers.
This tragedy could have been prevented with proper warnings, and Disney is clearly liable for its failures.