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Alligator Liability?

By David B. Cronheim, Esq.,
Attorney At Law

David B. Cronheim

Georgia Supreme Court Rules Against Decedents of 83 Year Old Woman Killed By Alligator in Georgia Golf Course Community

Anyone who has ever played golf in Florida knows that alligators are a ubiquitous feature on golf courses throughout the state. However, for our neighbors just to the north, the question of whether a person would know there were alligators lurking in a golf course lagoon made it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

In June, the court ruled that the family of a woman who was killed by an 8-foot alligator while walking in her daughter's planned golf community cannot recover against the course or homeowners' association.

According to the opinion, 83 year-old Gwyneth Williams was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law at their house in The Landings, an upscale golf development on Skidaway Island near Savannah. On the evening of October 5, 2007, Williams went for a walk and was attacked by an alligator. Her body was found floating in the lagoon the next morning. Later, authorities killed an 8-foot alligator in the lagoon and parts of Williams' body were recovered from the animal's stomach.

Williams' relatives filed suit against The Landings under a premises liability theory. A closely divided Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Williams' claim against the resort was barred as a matter of law because Williams had the same knowledge regarding alligators as The Landings did. The majority, citing a 1968 Georgia case (McKnight v. Guffin) held that:

"The true ground of liability is the proprietor's superior knowledge of the perilous instrumentality and the danger therefrom to persons going upon the property. It is when the perilous instrumentality is known to the owner or occupant and not known to the person injured that a recovery is permitted. One who is familiar with the premises cannot rely for recovery upon the negligence of the defendant in failing to correct a patent defect where such party had equal means with the defendant of discovering it or equal knowledge of its existence."

In other words, Williams could not recover because alligators were not a latent defect or trap on the premises. On the contrary, the presence of alligators was open and apparent to all, and specifically to Williams who, testimony showed, had seen alligators on several occasions while driving through the community.

The three dissenting justices countered that while Williams may have known there were alligators in the lagoons, she may not have known how big they were simply by virtue of having seen an alligator while driving through the community. Whether Williams knew the lakes held "large and aggressive alligators" was a question for the jury, the dissent asserted.

The dissent also argued that The Landings affirmative actions heightened its duty to community residents because "The Landings Association had an advertised policy that it removed from the 151 lagoons in the community alligators which were seven feet long or larger and/or alligators which were aggressive towards humans or pets." Moreover, The Landings did not post signs near the lagoons warning guests about alligators. In concert, these two factors, the dissent argued, weighed in favor of allowing a jury to decide whether The Landings exercised reasonable care.

However, in the end, the majority's decision is a victory for personal responsibility. Williams knew there were alligators present in the community and went for a walk anyway. Her family should not be able to recover against the community. Writing for the majority, Justice Melton stated that:

"Williams chose to go for a walk at night near a lagoon in a community in which she knew wild alligators were present. This act undisputably shows that Williams either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so."

As to whether Williams knew the lagoons contained large and potentially man-eating alligators, the majority held that whether Williams knew large alligators were present was irrelevant. She certainly knew alligators inhabited the area. As the court put it: "Williams was not incompetent. A reasonable adult...understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and...therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon...after dark."

In conclusion, while the tragedy occurred in Georgia, the case is nonetheless instructive. Golf courses and homeowners associations will no doubt be pleased by the finding of no liability, but may miss the larger issue. The narrow decision shows that if only a few factors had been altered only slightly, the case could easily have gone to a jury. For example, had the attack occurred on Williams' first visit to the community before she had seen an alligator, her family would have had a much stronger case. As is, the course and homeowners' association racked up enormous legal bills litigating the matter all the way to the state supreme court. A legally sound alligator policy upfront would have saved The Landings hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

For suggestions on how to minimize premises liability and/or develop an alligator policy, David B. Cronheim welcomes homeowners associations and golf courses to contact him at

David B. Cronheim, Esq. is an attorney at the law firm of Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A., a member of the Florida Bar, and author of the golf law blog Tee, Esq.

Page 5 From Fall 2012 Florida Golf Magazine ©Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved. Subscribe at
To advertise in Florida Golf Magazine in print and on-line, phone 863-227-2751 and/or email