Plaintiff’s Assumption of the Risk of Wild Animals in Georgia

In a recent case, the Georgia Supreme Court considered a premises liability case in which an 83-year-old woman was attacked and killed by an alligator in a planned residential community owned by The Landings. At the time of the attack, the woman was housesitting for her daughter’s family at The Landings, a residential community with a golf course located on an island off the coast of Georgia. Before the land was developed, it was mostly marsh, with indigenous alligators.

The Landings defendants installed a lagoon for drainage so that they could build residential properties on the land. The project was completed in the 1970s and indigenous alligators began going on and off the property through the lagoon.

Nobody was ever attacked in spite of the alligator presence until the woman was attacked. Although alligators inhabited the area of The Landings before and after its establishment, no person had ever been attacked until the night of the woman’s attack. She was walking near a lagoon after 6:00 p.m., and the next morning her body was found floating in the water with her limbs bitten off.
An eight-foot alligator was caught in the lagoon and when the alligator was killed, part of her body had been found in its stomach. The woman’s estate and heirs sued the Landings for wrongful death and pain and suffering. The Landings defendants brought a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court had denied in parts. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial. The defendants asked the Georgia Supreme Court to review and the Court agreed.

Before the attack the woman was aware of the alligators’ presence. Her son-in-law had testified that he had once stopped the car to let the woman look at an alligator. He thought she had a normal respect for wild animals. However, he didn’t ever have a conversation about how to behave around wild animals with her because he saw her as intelligent. Similarly the woman’s own son had stopped the car to let his mother look at alligators though she didn’t like them.

In a Georgia premises liability case, a plaintiff faced with a defendant’s motion for summary judgment must present evidence that would allow a rational trier of fact to find the defendant knew or should have known of a hazard. Once that’s shown, the defendant must produce evidence that the plaintiff’s own negligence (intentional disregard or failure to use ordinary care) caused her injuries.

If the defendant successfully produces that evidence, the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff who must show a genuine disputed fact on her negligence. Alternatively the plaintiff must show that any negligence on her part stemmed from the defendants’ conduct.
The Court noted that a proprietor is considered to have greater knowledge of the peril. Recovery is appropriate if the owner knows the peril and the injured person does not know of the peril.

In this case, the woman was well-aware of the alligators. The Court found that she had knowledge equal to The Landings defendants. She had also stated previously that she didn’t want to be near the alligators because she saw them as dangerous. Yet she elected to go walking near the lagoon at night by herself. The Court found that this showed she had assumed the risk of walking by wild alligators or else had failed to exercise reasonable care.

The plaintiffs argued that the woman didn’t necessarily know there were alligators that were seven or eight feet in length. However, the Court reversed the judgment for the plaintiffs, noting that a reasonable nondisabled adult understands small alligators have large parents and can move from one lagoon to the next. That adult assumes the risk.

If you are seriously injured on somebody else’s property, you may have grounds for a lawsuit. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.