ATLANTA - The Georgia Supreme Court is grappling with the question of whether a posh real-estate development is to blame for an alligator mauling an 83-year-old visitor to death.
The seven justices on the state’s highest court heard oral arguments Monday from lawyers for the Landings, a development near Savannah, and for the family of the victim, Gwyneth Williams.
There were no witnesses to Williams’ 2007 death while she was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law. Some boys called security officers when they heard her crying for help, and her mutilated body was found the next day.
The family hasn’t gotten a chance to lay out their entire case before a jury because a Chatham County judge disallowed part of their argument. The Court of Appeals then agreed with parts of the judge’s ruling and disagreed with some, setting up an appeal for the high court to settle. It will determine whether there will be a trial and what the jury can hear.
“This is not the usual liability case,” said John Foster, attorney for the Landings. “This is not a crack in the sidewalk or a spill on the floor. This is a living, breathing, wild animal.”
The development argues that it can’t be liable for the actions of a wild animal.
But lawyers for Williams’ family say there were things the development could have done. After all, it has a policy to remove or destroy alligators that are longer than 7 feet and smaller ones if they become aggressive. Since the beast that attacked Williams was 8 feet long, it is proof the development dropped the ball, argued attorney Robert Turner.
“Obviously, they were not following their own policy,” he said.
Not only that, the development is more liable because it did things to attract alligators, he said.
The Landings built 150 lagoons where alligators like to live instead of draining the swamp to make way for residences the way the developers of Wilmington Island did. Alligators are practically nonexistent on Wilmington Island, and the Landings has to remove about 20 per year. Yet, Turner said, it doesn’t have warning signs, and the removal policy on its website gives the public a false sense of security.
Justice David Nahmias questioned lawyers for both sides in the case.
The justice said the area behind his home is known to have cottonmouth snakes, and the neighborhood parents warn their children.
But does the law require him to post signs warning visitors, he asked.
“I would,” Turner said.
Later he added, “If you had 150 snakes in your backyard and your neighbor only had one, I’d think something’s going on there. I think you have a duty to warn people.”
The justice noted that Williams had apparently seen the occasional alligator while driving through the development and that most people know alligators live near water.
“Why wouldn’t an ordinary adult know that would be dangerous?” he asked.
If she had that level of awareness, then the development couldn’t be sued for failing to post signs or remove the alligator that attacked her.
Turner said, “I think that’s a jury question.”
Mrs. Williams’ family wants the Supreme Court to send the whole case to a Chatham County jury, but the justices offered no clues about how they will decide over the next four or five months.
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