ON DANGEROUS ANIMAL ATTACKS – SNAKES, ALLIGATORS, AND CROCODILES, TIGERS, GORILLAS, AND MORE: A CALL TO ACTION FOR THE ANIMAL OWNERS, PROPERTY OWNERS, AND OWNERS AND OPERATORS OF ZOOS AND ANIMAL ATTRACTION FACILITIES
It has now been almost 40 years since I first represented – (along with my co-counsel, Ward Wagner, Jr.) – the family of a small child killed by a giant crocodile at the (then) Miami Serpentarium. This was followed just a short while later by my taking on the representation of yet another family whose little boy was attacked by an alligator in the children’s play area at a condominium project in Boca Raton, Florida. Over the years, we have seen so many more cases of similar or related attacks which were totally unnecessary and avoidable had the owners of the property or the operators of the animal attraction facilities taken simple but needed safety and protection steps.
Sadly, we have recently seen the tragic death of a young woman killed by a tiger at the Palm Beach Zoo, followed by a four-year-old child maneuvering his way into a gorilla facility. And then in June 2016, we saw the incident of a two-year-old child being snatched by an alligator near the Grand Floridian Hotel Resort at Disney World while his parents frantically tried to fight off the alligator and save this precious child. In each of these instances where families were visiting a zoo or an animal attraction, the necessary safety and protection measures had not been taken by the facilities’ owners and operators, in my view, and this led directly to an unnecessary and tragic death. The families – including the parents and the children in these instances – acted and behaved exactly as would be expected of parents and children and tourists and visitors, and there is not one iota of fault on their part. These families were invited and even coaxed (through advertising methods) to visit these properties and attractions being given – directly or impliedly – a promise and guarantee of safety – and that all protective measures would be in place so that no such tragedy could occur.
In the recent case involving the alligator attack at Disney World, it was clearly known to the “owner” of the resort and park, and to those involved in the management, maintenance and operation of the hotel facilities, and the lake, and the entirety of the park itself, that alligators and water moccasins permeate freshwater lakes in Florida. It was clearly known by the owners and operators that multiple alligators have been visible and seen on a continuous basis for weeks and months and years. It was known to the owner and operator that children and adults are at water’s edge near the Seven Seas Lagoon on a daily basis – throughout each of the four seasons in Florida – even though Florida is somewhat of a one- or two-season state. Knowing the behavior of human beings (including children) and knowing the dangerous capacities of water moccasins and alligators – it is unthinkable that safety measures were not in place by Disney World prior to this incident happening including, at a minimum, (a) placement of alligator and water moccasin warning signs that were real and visible and provided full and complete warnings; (b) that barriers along the beach head or waterline were not in place as a fail-safe preventative measure to eliminate even the possibility of a little child getting into the water or at or near water’s edge; (c) that the owner and operator did not have in place a fail-safe method of continuously clearing the lake of such predators (especially considering this is a man-made lake constructed for the primary purpose of running a highly profitable, money-generating business). Alligators are everywhere in Florida. Water moccasins are almost everywhere in Florida. Crocodiles are in certain geographical areas in Florida.
Wild animals in their natural habitat pose a real and significant danger, especially to tourists and visitors who may not appreciate the risk. Similar tragedies can be prevented in the future if property owners and attraction operators take wise, sensible, complete and meaningful steps and precautions to fully WARN AND PROTECT against the danger.
John F. Romano
June 23, 2016