(CN) – An 83-year-old woman who was killed by a wild alligator knew the risks of strolling beside a gator-filled lagoon, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled.
The high court voted 4-3 to overturn an appeals court decision that green-lit a lawsuit against the association that managed the lagoon property.
Gwyneth Williams had been house-sitting in October 2007 for her daughter and son-in-law at their home in The Landings, a large gated community on Skidaway Island, 10 miles south of Savannah
Williams, who was 83 at the time, went for a walk by one of the lagoons near her daughter’s home, which was bordered by a park-like area on one side and a golf course on the other. The following morning, Williams’ body was found floating in the lagoon. Her right foot and both forearms had been bitten off. An 8-foot alligator was later caught in the area and killed, and parts of Williams’ body were found in its stomach.
In 2008, Williams’ family sued The Landings Association and The Landings Club, which managed the community and the golf course, arguing that they had failed to warn residents and take reasonable steps to protect the public against alligator attacks.
The development’s owners sought summary judgment, but a trial court partially denied their motion, finding that “a question of fact remained as to whether The Landings entities failed, pursuant to the law of premises liability, to take reasonable steps to protect Gwyneth Williams from being attacked and killed by an alligator” in the residential community they managed.
After the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, the Landings appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Four of the justices on Monday agreed that “Williams had equal knowledge of the threat of alligators within the community.”
Alligators, indigenous to the area, were there before The Landings broke ground in the 1970s. The developers had drained the swamps and created an interconnected system of more than 100 lagoons, which allowed alligators to move in and out of The Landings. And though alligators continued to inhabit the area after creation of the community, no other person had been attacked before Williams’ death on Oct. 5, 2007, according to the ruling.
“In this case, testimony shows that Williams was aware that wild alligators were present around The Landings and in the lagoons,” Justice Harold Melton wrote for the majority. “Therefore, she had knowledge equal to The Landings entities about the presence of alligators in the community.”
Williams knew the wild alligators were dangerous, yet still chose to go for a walk at night near a lagoon where she knew they were present, the decision states.
Williams’ son and son-in-law even testified that Williams disliked alligators and was aware they inhabited the lagoons at The Landings.
“While there is no doubt that Williams’ death was a tragic event, Williams was not incompetent,” Melton added. “A reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and such an adult, therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon in that community after dark.”
The dissenting opinion states that there is no “competent evidence that the decedent knew there were alligators over 7 feet in size living in the community or living in the lagoon in which [Williams’] body was found.”
What’s more, The Landings advertised that it had removed from the lagoons alligators that were 7 feet or larger, or aggressive toward humans or pets, the judges argued.
In fact, the community relied on residents and employees to report such animals.
Premises liability cases can only be resolved on summary judgment when “the evidence is plain, palpable, and undisputed,” Justice Robert Benham wrote for the dissent.
That is simply not the case in the Williams lawsuit, he added.
The dissent notes several specific questions that should have been left to the jury. These issues include whether Williams knew such large alligators lived in the area and whether The Landings did its part in keeping residents safe from alligators.