Disney Fatality From Alligator Attack: A Primer on Corporate Negligence

I usually write in this blog about primarily injury liability issues that occur in, or are likely to affect, Massachusetts residents.  And an alligator attack isn’t exactly likely in this northeast state, that’s for certain.  So why write here about the devastating tragedy that occurred in Walt Disney World in Florida, where a 2 year boy was killed by an alligator at Disney’s theme park there?  Two reasons: 1) Because there are amusement parks and theme parks in Massachusetts, and the framework of the Disney accident illustrates in a fairly illustrative way, how and why theme parks can be held liable for injuries that occur on their property.  2)  At least as reported so far, this tragic case illustrates corporate negligence at its worst.

The facts of this story, as reported this far, are nothing short of horrific:  A young family from Nebraska travels to Disney World in Florida for a vacation.  They were staying at the resort’s Grand Floridian Hotel, next to the “Polynesian Resort Village” attraction, which has a hotel abutting a man-made lagoon.  The lagoon area recreates a beach environment, complete with beach loungers.  The only warning signs present at the site are “No Swimming” signs.  The couple’s two-year old son waded six inches into the water, when a six-foot alligator snatched the toddler, dragged him under water and killed him.  As the boy’s horrified parents watched.

In what is remarkably surprising given the Disney organization’s reputation for sterling management practices, the company posted NO warning signs that the water contained man-eating alligators.  As a Boston negligence lawyer, I am stunned by this lack of risk management by a company known as one of the best examples of theme park management.  But it gets worse:  News reports indicate that Disney was placed on warning that the alligators in the lagoon there had exhibited aggressive and dangerous behavior previously – and reportedly did nothing about it.

Fox News has reported that three years ago, a man named David Hinden, (ironically, a lawyer) a lawyer, told CBS News that three years ago in 2013, he and his family were guests at Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida, which is located 3 ½ miles from where Tuesday night’s attack occurred.  Hinden said that during that visit in 2013, his five-year-old son had waded calf deep into that other resort’s lagoon, when Hinden spotted a six-foot alligator and suddenly grabbed his son out of the water, and pulling him to safety. Hinden also said he spotted another alligator lurking nearby.

According to Hinden, he reported the incident to a hotel manager at the resort, and even showed the manager pictures he had taken of the alligator in the lagoon.  To quote Hinden: “And the response – I couldn’t believe it.  It was, ‘Those are resident pets, and we’ve known about them for years. And they’re harmless, they’re not going to attack anybody.'”

The Disney organization is in some major legal trouble here – not to mention a public relations disaster.  How serious does Disney view this incident?  Put it this way:  For the past seven years, Disney has been building a multi-billion dollar them park in Shanghai, China.  They’ve invested enormous assets there.  Almost every senior Disney executive, including Disney’s Chief Executive Bob Iger  and Walt Disney World President George Kalogridis were there – and Kalogridis and several Disney executives flew back to Florida to address this crisis.  Mr. Iger reportedly called the dead boy’s family himself, and offered public condolences through Disney’s media representatives.  It’s known as full-on damage control.

I’ll talk about the specific legal reasons why Disney is liable for this fatality – and why this  serves as an outline for why theme parks here in Massachusetts can be held liable for injuries on their properties, also – in Part Two of this post, in a few days.