Ga. Supreme Court finds for gated community owner in gator case

This summary of today’s Georgia Supreme Court decision, in a gruesome fight over who is responsible for local wildlife, just rolled out:

In a split 4-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling in a high-profile Chatham County case involving an elderly woman who was partially eaten by an alligator.

As a result of today’s decision, written by Justice Harold Melton, the woman’s family has lost its attempt to have a jury try their case against the owners of the gated community where Gwyneth Williams was killed.
“Because the record shows that Williams had equal knowledge of the threat of alligators within the community, we reverse,” today’s majority decision says.

According to briefs filed in the case, Williams was housesitting for her daughter and son-in-law at their home in The Landings, a gated residential community of about 8,500 residents located on 4,500 acres on Skidaway Island, a coastal barrier island near Savannah. The 83-year-old woman, who lived independently in Canada, had visited her daughter a number of times before, sometimes staying a couple of months. This time, she had offered to care for the couple’s two dogs while they were in Italy.

Alligators are indigenous to the area, and the animals were there before and after The Landings was developed in the 1970s. In building the property, the developers had drained swampy areas and created an interconnected system of 151 lagoons. Since the community was developed, there had never been an alligator attack against a person. Although no warnings about alligators were posted at the lagoons, The Landings Association did warn residents in publications and on its website that alligators were present and could be extremely dangerous. It also said it had a policy of arranging to have a state Department of Natural Resources trapper remove aggressive alligators or any greater than seven feet in length.

Behind the house where Williams was staying was Lagoon No. 15, which was bordered by a park-like common area on one side and a golf course owned by The Landings Club on the other. Although there were no witnesses, on the night of Oct. 5, 2007, Williams apparently went alone for a walk sometime after 6:00 p.m. At about that time, several boys reported to the property’s security forces that they heard a woman crying for help. On Oct. 6, Williams’ mutilated body was found floating in Lagoon No. 15. Her right foot and both forearms had been bitten off. Later an eight-foot alligator was found in the same lagoon and parts of Williams’ body were found in the animal’s stomach.

In October 2008, Williams’ heirs sued The Landings Association and The Landings Club, joint owners of the lagoon, seeking damages for the wrongful death of Gwyneth Williams. The owners responded by filing motions for summary judgment. (A court grants “summary judgment” when it determines there is no need for a jury trial because there is no genuine debate over the facts and the person requesting the judgment is entitled to it based on the law.)

Following a hearing, the trial court partially denied the owners’ motions for summary judgment, meaning the case could proceed to trial. The trial court found that questions of fact remained as to whether The Landings failed to take reasonable steps to protect Williams from being attacked and killed by an alligator on its property. On appeal, the Court of Appeals found the trial court was correct in partially denying the owners’ motions for summary judgment. The owners then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

“In this case, testimony shows that Williams was aware that wild alligators were present around The Landings and in the lagoons,” the majority opinion says. “Therefore, she had knowledge equal to The Landings entities about the presence of alligators in the community.” Furthermore, the majority states, Williams knew the alligators were dangerous, yet still chose to walk at night near a lagoon where she knew wild alligators were present. “Under these circumstances, the trial court should have granted the motions for summary judgment brought by the Landings entities regarding Williams’ premises liability claims,” states the majority, joined by Justices Hugh Thompson, P. Harris Hines and David Nahmias.

In the dissent, Justice Robert Benham writes that while there was evidence Williams had once seen an alligator in the area, there was no “competent evidence” that she knew there were alligators over seven feet in size living there. Premises liability cases such as this can only be resolved by summary judgment when the evidence is “plain, palpable and undisputed.” Here it is not, says the dissent, joined by Chief Justice George Carley and Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein.

For one thing, The Landings advertised it removed any alligators that were aggressive or longer than seven feet. “Indeed, there are very specific questions in this case that must go to a jury,” the dissent says, including whether Williams knew there were large and aggressive alligators in the community and whether The Landings’ owners had exercised reasonable care in keeping the premises safe.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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95 comments Add your comment

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
8:11 am

Thus showing once again the disparity in conservative and moderate thinking.

How can it be that these little tin despot community governments can control every tiny detail of your house, from the size of your basketball hoop, to whether or not you are mandated to have Christmas tree decorations, when they do not share a corresponding liability regarding unusual conditions of environmental conditions they create?

The minority in this case is rather correct in not assuming that the resident in question should have some how magically assumed that because she saw one alligator, she should therefore assume that the property was riddled with the place.

Republicans and Libertarians love love love love to talk about their rights as enumerated in the constitution…contract rights, the right to assemble (and create vampire invisible people without souls who can own property and serve as our overlords forever through unlimited speech), the right to speech (as determined by how much cash you have), the right to arms (legitimate, except of course, that only white people are allowed to have or use them and anyone who complains of a disparity in enforcement is just playing the race card), but the right to a trial by a jury?

NAH!

Georgia. The best government that money can buy.

Bobby

June 18th, 2012
8:20 am

Gators in South Georgia, “shocking”.
Sorry for the family, but gators have been in that area forever. What’s next? Sue someone because a deer runs out in front of your car?

findog

June 18th, 2012
8:22 am

So,
Junior only needs to win once every four years to remain the top NASCAR driver [fan following]
Kind of like President Obama – four more years…

Sam the Sham

June 18th, 2012
8:26 am

You can’t get money out of a gator. All you can do is choot ‘em.

cher

June 18th, 2012
8:27 am

findog,

Good one!

Hypocrite Hunter

June 18th, 2012
8:29 am

Aaron, that really is well put. I concede the conceptual point that with greater control comes greater responsibility and socially, we shouldn’t allow the enforcement of the one without the burden of the other. On the other hand, I think that being eaten by alligators is a bit of a tort stretch…unless it was in fact the alleged tortfeasor’s personal alligator. We have artificially extended the tenuous chains of liability to the point that we blur genuine responsibility for personal behavior. At what point must there be a sign tattooed to every weeping willow tree that says…”Beware of indigenous wildlife…you may be lower on the food chain than you think.” My condolences to the family on a horrible outcome but the person who chose to live there (at least to me) bears the brunt of the obligation of warning and safety.

GaBlue

June 18th, 2012
8:32 am

Your rights in our legal system are directly related to how much money you can pony up before your situation reaches the courtroom. That being said, you gotta be crazy to walk along those lagoons. There should be signs posted for transplants who don’t get it — not for legal reasons so much as for people-are-stupid reasons. “WARNING: Alligators are hungry and you smell like food.”

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
8:32 am

In the recent state park I attended they had signs EVERYWHERE that said, “Beware of Alligators” and it was an alligator farm.

How about having a simple sign at the entrance of the community?

They DO bear a direct and relevant chain since their construction specifically allowed for the retention of natural habitat for the alligators. If they had to do so to meet Federal and State environmental mandates, then those governments too bear some responsibility, even if it is a minimum standard of ensuring people have a reasonable method of knowing a psychotically dangerous animal makes its habitat in the area.

cher

June 18th, 2012
8:32 am

dale jr is the romney of nascar. born on third and thinks he hit a triple.

Dawgmess

June 18th, 2012
8:33 am

An alligator eat your mama? – Sue the property owner. Spill hot coffee in your lap? – Sue the store where you bought it. Smoke cigarettes for 30 years and get cancer? – Sue the tobacco company.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
8:35 am

Oh and as to at what point can we stop having signs posted for idiots?

At roughly the same time that Moderates stop thinking people who are AOK with letting someone die because they don’t want to pay $1 in taxes to give someone a $20 preventative treatment that instead they need to go to the emergency room for and then die.

Moderates today have nothing on the germans in WWII who went, “What concentration camps?”

Am I going full out Godwin on Republicans? No. Republicans are not Nazis.

But are Moderates just as willfully oblivious to evil as the germans were then? Hell yes.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
8:37 am

@Dawgmess – Love that trope about the hot coffee.

Did you know that McDonalds used to have their coffee at illegal temperatures until that lawsuit came along? Yeah, sometimes you do need to sue to get them to change their behavior, because like moderates have shown us, until you affect their pocket book, they have no conscience.

And when a tobacco company bribes scientists and governments for 30 years to lie lie lie lie, you bet they are liable.

Just like the coal companies will be liable in 20 years for climate change…as will Libertarian think thanks and hopefully just plain libertarians.

Bobby

June 18th, 2012
8:39 am

Do we have to put an alligator warning sign at every single community in Southeast Georgia? How about every single place in Florida? While we’re at it, a deer sign every half mile on every street in the State of Georgia?

Sorry, but at some point, people need to be aware of the indiginous wildlife of the area.

The news this morning was talking about coyote attacks in Gwinnett county. Should we now put coyote signs on every single alley & street?

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
8:41 am

@Bobby – This community was HIGHLY more at risk than ‘every single community in southeast georgia’….

However with Florida, yes, we should put a sign that says, “Warning: Full of Ignorance that Will Elect Really Really Stupid Governors” in front of every single community.

sid

June 18th, 2012
8:46 am

A moose crossing sign for all my men.

findog

June 18th, 2012
8:47 am

Why did they remove alligators longer than 7-feet?
Why did the move aggressive alligators?
Why didn’t the rent-a-cop do anything more than write a note?
Do alligators have growing spurts where they go from under 7 to 8-feet overnight?
Had it been a bulldog instead of gator would there have been liability in Georgia?

Grits

June 18th, 2012
8:48 am

“…wild alligators.” Really? What planet was that guy from?

Aquagirl

June 18th, 2012
8:55 am

their construction specifically allowed for the retention of natural habitat for the alligators. If they had to do so to meet Federal and State environmental mandates, then those governments too bear some responsibility

It’s not like a gated community in Arizona decided to build an alligator farm. Alligators live in on Skidaway because it’s low-lying and has lots of wetland. Unless they truck in billions of square feet of earth the water has to go somewhere near the houses.

Sad story, but the family seems to feel the association has MORE responsibility than THEY did. If someone is a guest on your property, it’s up to you to warn them about alligators, cranky neighbors, alien abductions, or other local hazards of the neighborhood.

Silver Creek Doug

June 18th, 2012
8:55 am

Aaron Burr, The Landings is NOT highly more at risk than every single community in SE GA. I speak from personal knowledge; I grew up in Savannah and used to work at The Landings. I grew up 2 blocks from the marsh, 45 minutes from The Landings by car, and had at least 3 alligators removed from my parents property as a child. Every community near the water in SE GA is aware of alligators.

If you live anywhere near the marsh or any other bodies of water, alligators are a constant fact of life, as are venomous snakes. You just get used to it and you adjust for it. Would you expect this lawsuit to stand if the woman had been bitten by an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake instead of an alligator?

I also work as a paralegal and I studied enough civil law to know the family had an uphill battle. To prove negligence, four elements must be present- a duty, breach of the duty, causation, and damage. The first one does not exist. The Landings has no legal duty to warn its residents that dangerous wildlife exists within its boundaries. That’s different from a moral obligation; moral obligations can’t be sued over.

Silver Creek Doug

June 18th, 2012
8:57 am

Findog, the DNR mandates that alligators over 7 feet MUST be removed from populated areas. It’s a state law in GA.

GeorgiAN

June 18th, 2012
8:58 am

@Aaron, Clearly you have NEVER, EVER been to SE Georgia much less the savannah area. It is ignorant to say that “This community was HIGHLY more at risk than ‘every single community in southeast georgia’….
” That community is no more at risk than any other community in the marsh.

ATinSAV

June 18th, 2012
8:59 am

Nice win for wildlife today. Can you imagine landowners removing all the potentionally dangerous wildlife from their properties for fear of some idiot with a lawsuit.

If you are so far removed from the natural world in your mind that you are unaware of the inherent threats the enviroment that you live in poses, than to me, you are fair game.

Dave

June 18th, 2012
9:01 am

You know there are alligators on the property and alligators live in the water. Alligators aren’t normally aggressive towards humans unless they are fed by humans or they are around them so much that they lose that fear. You are aware that alligators are predetors. You are an adult and aware of all of this, yet you still go wandering near the water….at night…… Well, guess what….here’s your sign. It’s more like Darwinism and natural selection to me.

Middle of the Road

June 18th, 2012
9:09 am

“Did you know that McDonalds used to have their coffee at illegal temperatures until that lawsuit came along?”

Please enlighten me, I did not know that there was a law about what temperature coffee had to be below. Please quote the law about that.

Middle of the Road

June 18th, 2012
9:10 am

“the DNR mandates that alligators over 7 feet MUST be removed from populated areas. It’s a state law in GA.”

Please give me a reference for that law. Who is supposed to do the “removing”? Local government? DNR? Private property owner?

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:11 am

Well, I stand corrected. Believe it or not, unlike Contards, I am capable of changing my thinking on an issue.

Of course, conversely, if the court is going to decide that people can’t sue communities because of stupid stuff like that, it would be awfully nice if they enforced it equally to businesses.

It still doesn’t change the fact that businesses get whatever they want when it comes to being able to sue someone in this state and private citizens do not.

Buzz G

June 18th, 2012
9:12 am

The US is $16 trillion in debt and rising. 40 cents of every dollar our government spends is borrowed money. But no one on the AJC dare mention it. Talking about the debt is the third rail of liberal journalism Talk about alligators, talk about anything but that debt being run up by Obama.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:13 am

http://www.snopes.com/legal/lawsuits.asp

And while I know Contards HATE Osha, federal regulations mandated safe working conditions…or do you think it is LEGAL to have coffee so hot that it can melt your flesh sitting around on a regular basis?

Aquagirl

June 18th, 2012
9:13 am

People aren’t happy with enjoying wild places for a moment, they want to build a house right on the spot. Then they freak out when the house falls off the cliff in a mudslide or alligators eat their family members. This is partly a problem of developers and tax-hungry politicians running wild.

We should designate certain places as “live at your own risk” areas. If a spotted owl swoops down and grabs your baby from the stroller that should be your tough luck.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:15 am

And before you think you’re all clever about the link I just posted…

http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?/ubb/get_topic/f/107/t/000479.html

Middle of the Road

June 18th, 2012
9:15 am

Going back to hot coffee – I am old enough to remember “percolators” which used boiling the water to make it go over the grounds, thus the coffee was 212 degreee fahrenheit. Water cannot be over 212 degrees (in free air). Back then we just were smart enough to let coffee cool a bit before we drank it (or tried to open the cup with it between our legs in a car). I guess we were probably running those percolators at ” an illegal temperature”.

Matlock

June 18th, 2012
9:16 am

It seems that someone will sue anyone or anything for any situation these days and we need to have 12 clones of Dr. House on the jury. 1) Everyone lies and 2) You can’t fix stupid. Many of these court cases can be narrowed down to a lack of common sense, you’re an idiot, you’re uncoordinated or “if you would just read the dad gum contract you signed before you sign it.” At some point, the law isn’t protecting you from others, you want the law to protect you from yourself. People just get those money signs in there eyes then present it to the media as “It’s not about the money.” Ummm….yeah, it is.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:16 am

@Aquagirl – Agreed. As long as you are free to sue them for not letting you know about the ‘at your own risk’ part.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:18 am

@Middle of the Road – In case you hadn’t figured it out, ANYTHING is illegal at some point or another…its a question of enforcement….

Which is why our entire system of law is insane.

Common sense should apply….and keeping your coffee hot enough to melt human flesh when you serve it to a customer is not common sense.

Tom

June 18th, 2012
9:24 am

So nice to know that we have the world’s most intelligent person (Aaron Burr V Mexico) to enlighten us. He has it all figured out and is not afraid to share his genius with us.

In this case, the Supreme Court got it exactly right. What’s next — suing the pope (Catholics profess him to be the Vicar of Christ on earth) when an earthquake occurs and destroys your house? It was an “act of God” and He must pay.

A pox on the nanny state and its many adherents.

Tanya

June 18th, 2012
9:24 am

I’m sorry for the loss to this family. But I think since she was house sitting the home owners have the responsibility of telling her the dangers. She should have known fromt hem not to be out there at night especially down by the water. I don’t believe this should have even gone this far, it wasn’t the fault of the community.

AlreadySheared

June 18th, 2012
9:25 am

A moose once bit my sister.
No, realli

kimmer

June 18th, 2012
9:27 am

I fully recognize the tragic, horrible loss of this family and offer my deepest condolences, however. They have some chutzpah to sue the homeowners association for negligence when it was THEIR house guest that fell victim to this tragedy. I would think that for anyone staying at YOUR house it is YOUR responsibility to adequately warn them of any inherent dangers. Also, it isn’t like gators are picking people off right and left. A gator attack on a human is actually an exceedingly rare event and even rarer on terra firma so it is unreasonable to expect a HA to be responsible for that.

The whole argument about restrictive covenants that someone brought up has zero to do with the homeowners responsibility in this. Covenants are there to protect the property value in a development and are disclosed to and freely agreed to by a buyer prior to purchase. If the prospective buyer does not like them they are also free to take their money and spend it somewhere else.

sailaway

June 18th, 2012
9:27 am

The community can not be held liable for a man eating alligator anymore than they could be held liable for someone being bitten by a mosquito carrying the West Nile virus.

Now if it can be proven that homeowners fed the alligator then that’s a different issue.

Matlock

June 18th, 2012
9:30 am

The death by the alligator was someone’s fault. It was the fault of the person who went strolling by the water at night. It wasn’t the home owner’s, It wasn’t the community’s. The alligator is now dead, but the fault is clerly the fault of the person who rolled the dice at night….and lost. It’s plain and simple. Why do we always have to blame someone else and say they have to pay? You made a foolish decision and paid the ultimate penalty. Case closed….NEXT?

Aquagirl

June 18th, 2012
9:33 am

I would think that for anyone staying at YOUR house it is YOUR responsibility to adequately warn them of any inherent dangers.

That’s what gets me about this lawsuit….”we were too stupid to warn grandma, the association should have been smarter than us! Why didn’t they beam warnings into her head?”

Middle of the Road

June 18th, 2012
9:33 am

So McDonalds is in a Lose-Lose situation – serve their coffee at 120 degrees or get sued, but then no one buys it because they don’t want to drink cold coffee 5 minutes after they buy it.

Bill from Atlanta

June 18th, 2012
9:37 am

Good Morning Aaron!!
Read through your and others opinions about the tragedy in the swamps. Its noted that you did change your opinion on this however, why continually look at giving gov agencies more POWER to fix problems? Seems like more problems are created. People will want to crucify a private company when it strays, steals or committs some evil. But government is always given a pass. Always because the libs may wish to punish individuals or tweek the policy of an agency But its blasphemous to take any power away from Government. I would rather deal with a thousand ENRONS and fix problems they create than one FANNY MAE or IRS that has police powers to enforce anything that is interpreted as lawful.

Classless Class Action

June 18th, 2012
9:40 am

Ok Aaron, suppose we post the signs you mention. What language? Is there one particular language that is more ‘reasonable’ than others? “English”, you might say. But this particular foreigner just happened to have come from an English speaking country. If you still think English is the proper and only necessary legal choice, then are you endorsing a gov official language to be used in our society?

How about the illiterate? Should these victim’s families sue the school system they attended? What about the blind? How will the regulators determine the distance between loudspeakers, and at what decibel must they be broadcast through the neighborhood? Then back to the language question for the broadcast message?

Bad things happen to people. We’re so concerned about blame in this country that ingenuity and self advancement is stiffled. Look at your beloved socialist Europeans. Although they have economic woes, it ain’t from suing one another or from fear of being sued. They laugh at our legal system and what it does to our society and markets. You are darn right that our legal system is only as good as the size of your pocket book. As long as we’re blaming, whose fault do you think that is? Average citizens and property developers or the lawyers and gov who created the labyrinth?

hopeless

June 18th, 2012
9:45 am

Pointless, silly suit in the name of greed. Would they have felt the same way if had been a dog?

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:51 am

@Morph – What a sad pathetic person you are. You are so afraid of your own ideas that you have to pretend to be someone else.

Please, continue to pretend to be me. It only justifies EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I say about conservatives and moderates. That you are cowards. That you have no values.

And, on a fundamental level, that you are just really disgusting human beings.

Please, I place no value in the name I use here. Post away.

Van Jones

June 18th, 2012
9:55 am

Where is a “Please Don’t pet the Alligators” sign when you need it?

Aquagirl

June 18th, 2012
9:58 am

Pointless, silly suit in the name of greed.

FWIW, the family probably does feel wronged and that this is the association’s fault. I imagine this was pretty traumatic for them.

The real problem here is that these homeowners feel “something” should have been done about alligators. When you build fancy gated communities with golf courses in a swamp, people have a false sense of security. They regard the alligators as trespassers.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
9:59 am

@Bill – Government can be evil. Business can be evil. Government can be a solution. Business can be a solution.

Only in contard black and white thinking is one always good and the other always evil. Governments are given a FREE PASS?! What planet are you from? Seriously. If they were given a free pass would you have JUST MADE THAT COMMENT?!

@Classless – Try common sense. Defining every single law is the thing that makes government so useless that people no longer have faith in it.

If you MUST have a standard then how about 12 people that think Republicans and Democrats are equally bad…ie the stupidest segment of the population….they’d probably say that a sign saying ‘beware of alligators’ in English is enough.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

June 18th, 2012
10:02 am

@Middle of the Road – They served their coffee 50 degrees higher than anyone else at that time.

MUST you defend the corporation no matter what? Seriously? No wonder Moderates think both Republicans and Democrats are equally bad.