Tragic Alligator Attack Should Cause Community Associations to Consider Alligator Dangers
The recent and devastating death of Shizuka Matsuki, a Florida woman attacked by an alligator, has alarmed and dismayed Floridians while raising many questions for community associations and their residents about alligator safety measures. Floridians are understandably fearful of alligator attacks due to the widespread prevalence of alligators in our state (similar considerations apply to less common and more localized crocodile populations in coastal areas). The disturbing details about the attack bring to mind the horror experienced in 2016 when a child, Lane Graves, was killed at a resort lagoon. While these types of attacks may not happen very often, even a single person or pet taken by an alligator is far too many.
For community associations maintaining the areas abounding bodies of water that are known possible alligator habitats (or at least areas they may occasionally frequent), safety is the primary concern. Associations do not and should not assume a duty to act as protectors and insurers of resident and/or invitee safety when it comes to wildlife; however, associations should, with advice of counsel and in consideration of insurance coverage requirements, take reasonable measures to warn residents and invitees by posting signage regarding the presence of alligators. In addition to signage, associations can, but are not required to, provide barriers (such as fencing) that prevent access to known areas of alligator habitation, while taking care to comply with requirements in the governing covenants and restrictions applicable to any “material alterations” or improvements of the property administered by the association.
Association directors and management personnel should educate themselves and can adopt policies to address the presence of alligators (and other dangerous wildlife). These policies can include contact information for appropriate agency hotlines, such as the nuisance alligator hotline of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (“FWC”), the administrative agency that handles alligator conservation and removal. The hotline can be reached at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286). The policy can provide for appropriate animal sighting protocols, such as a requirement that residents and guests report sightings to management in writing, mass notification to residents of alligator sightings, immediate calls to the FWC hotline, strict rules against engagement by unqualified residents, owners, invitees, or association or management personnel, etc. The association can also provide educational materials to new owners and residents regarding the potential or known presence of alligators, including a link to the website for the FWC (www.myfwc.com). Associations with websites should strongly consider including links to these resources. Again, legal counsel should be consulted to discuss the best way to enact these types of policies.