Disney Could Face Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit in Tragic Alligator Case, but Will Likely Offer Settlement, Legal Experts Say
"It's heartbreaking to think that this tragedy could have been prevented if Disney would have warned their guests and taken safety measures," attorney Matt Morgan tells PEOPLE
Matt Morgan, an Orlando attorney who has litigated negligence cases against Florida theme parks, says that the Graves family may be able to file a wrongful death claim against the Walt Disney Corporation.
“The Walt Disney Corporation has a duty to warn their hotel guests of any dangers that they either know about or should know about,” Morgan tells PEOPLE.
The toddler from Elkhorn, Nebraska, was wading in the shallows of the Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa around 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday when an alligator grabbed him and pulled him under the water.
His father, Matt Graves, rushed into the water and sustained lacerations on his hand in an attempt to fight off the alligator. He then summoned a lifeguard from a nearby pool, who was also unable to rescue the boy.
After a 16-hour search, the boy’s deceased body was discovered fully intact – just 15 yards from where he was taken.
There were signs that read “no swimming” posted in the area but no signage warning of alligators, a Disney spokesperson confirmed to PEOPLE. The boy was splashing in about 6 inches to one foot of water at the time of the attack, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said.
At a press conference, Wednesday, Demings said that it didn t appear the boy had been doing anything unusually risky when the attack occurred.
“I believe what this 2-year-old was doing was perhaps what any 2-year-old would be doing,” Demings said of the moments before the boy was attacked.
A case against Disney would hinge on whether or not the resort knew about the alligators living in the resort’s Seven Seas Lagoon and the danger they presented to guests, according to Morgan.
“If Disney had knowledge that there were alligators in the lagoon and did not take steps to inform their guests of such dangers, then they could be liable,” Morgan explains.
At a press conference Wednesday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said that the resort routinely removes alligators from the lagoon.
“They have a full-time staff observing these waters and they have essentially an open permit system where any time they see an alligator or a complaint is called in, it can be taken out,” Wiley said.
This program could constitute proof that the resort was aware of the alligators and the dangers they presented, Morgan says. He adds that the resort placed beach chairs and umbrellas on the beach of the lagoon and encouraged guests to enjoy the space for recreational purposes without adequately warning them about the gators.
Morgan says he believes signs alerting guests about the alligators could have prevented the family’s tragedy.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that this tragedy could have been prevented if Disney would have warned their guests and taken safety measures,” he says.
Alan Sykes, a professor at Stanford Law School, agrees that “no swimming signs” likely will not stand up as adequate warning about the dangers of the lagoon.
“As I understand it, the boy wasn t swimming, he was wading on the edge of the lagoon,” Sykes tells PEOPLE. “So I think if Disney knew there were alligators in the area and they did nothing to warn guests except to say ‘no swimming,’ then there’s a fairly respectable case for liability.”
In a statement, Walt Disney Resorts Vice President Jacquee Wahler said that the Grand Floridian resort was reviewing its existing signage.
“All of our beaches are currently closed, and we are conducting a swift and thorough review of all of our processes and protocols,” the statement said. “This includes the number, placement and wording of our signage and warnings.”
The Florida Department of Environmental protection posts warning signs that alligators are present, not just in swimming areas, but walkways in state parks, a spokesman tells PEOPLE.
Morgan says that businesses like hotels have a duty to do the same.
“A hotel has a duty to their business invitee to protect them from known dangers which are present on their property and in this particular instance it is my opinion that because they may have been aware that these alligators were present in the seven seas lagoon and didn t warn guests that could be particularly problematic,” he says.
While the argument may be made that the presence of alligators in Florida’s waterways is widely known, Sykes says he would be “skeptical of a claim that a family visiting from Nebraska would necessarily know about the alligator danger in a resort lagoon.”
Adds Morgan: “This family from Nebraska comes to Disney and assumes that Disney has done everything in their power to protect them while they’re on their property. Never in their wildest nightmares could they have imagined that there was an alligator looming nearby which was large enough to carry their son away.”
There is a legal precedent for such a claim stemming from a 2009 case in which a golfer who was attacked by an alligator that emerged from a lagoon at Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort in South Carolina successfully sued the resort, according to The State Prosecutors argued that the resort did not adequately warn visitors about the alligators and a confidential settlement was awarded to the man who lost an arm in the attack.
Both Morgan and Sykes believe it is likely that Disney will offer a settlement to the Graves family. Because “there is no amount of money that will adequately compensate this family for their loss,” Morgan says he believes the case will go to trial.
“In our civil justice system, the only remedy families like this have to hold corporations liable for their actions are monetary damages,” Morgan says. “With that said, if this family was posed with the choice between a significant sum of money and having their son back, there is no question in an instant they would choose their son. However, that choice was taken from them.”
Morgan believes a jury would likely award the family an 8-figure sum.
“I believe a jury could return a verdict of 8 figures and when coming to that conclusion, one only needs to ask oneself, ‘What if this were my child?’ ” Morgan says.
On Wednesday, the Graves family, who returned home to Nebraska, asked for privacy to grieve, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. On Thursday, the family released the following statement to ABC News: “Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our son.”
“We are devastated and ask for privacy during this extremely difficult time. To all of the local authorities and staff who worked tirelessly these past 24 hours, we express our deepest gratitude.”