Georgia Supreme Court to hear case of woman eaten by alligator
This week, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to take up a grisly case that may be of interest to exurban land developers, hinterlands business owners and anyone else who dwells in what is known as the "wildland urban interface"; that is, the place where nature and development meet.
In October 2007, 83-year-old Gwyneth Williams was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law in their Savannah-area suburb while the couple were in Europe.
Neighbors found Williams floating dead in one of the many lagoons that dot the swampy coastal development, known as The Landings. A medical examiner determined that an alligator had bitten off Williams' forearms, her hands and her right foot. A trapper eventually found an 8-foot alligator, killed it and found Williams' body parts inside the creature's stomach.
The family sued the subdivision's homeowners association, arguing that it should have done a better job ensuring the safety of visitors to a place where alligators are common.
A key issue the Georgia court will address is whether the homeowners' association should be shielded from the lawsuit under a doctrine known as "animals ferae naturae."
A ferae naturae animal is a wild one, as opposed to a domesticated one. Walter W. Ballew III, the attorney for the homeowners' association, cited a Texas appellate court decision in arguing that the doctrine means that a "landowner cannot be liable for the acts of animals ferae naturae, that is indigenous wild animals, occurring on his or her property unless the landowner has actually reduced the wild animals to possession or control, or introduced a non-indigenous animal to the area."
There is no question that alligators are indigenous to coastal Georgia.
"That rationale makes the most sense from a public policy view," Ballew wrote in his appeal to the Georgia high court. In general, he wrote, "a landowner should not be penalized for the presence of wild animals on his or her property."
Ballew also culled this particularly piquant passage from the Texas decision, which sounded like it could have been written by a cowboy poet, or perhaps Rick Perry, in one of his more swaggery, and less tongue-tied, moments:
"A good deal of vegetation in Texas stings, sticks or stinks. Any number of insects and animals can hurt, or even kill you.... Under ordinary circumstances, Texas landowners do not have a duty to warn their guests about the presence and behavior patterns of every species of indigneous wild animals and plants."
Attorneys for Williams' family argue that the alligator had been in the lagoon for a long time and "could have, and should have, been easily discovered and removed by a responsible maintenance program," the Morris News Service's Walter C. Jones reported Tuesday.
The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in February. Its decision, of course, will only apply to Georgia. But like the Texas ruling, its language and reasoning could always show up in the court systems of other states that struggle with matters of man and beast.
-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta
Photo: An alligator safely within the confines of the Los Angeles Zoo. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times