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How Important is a Warning?

The national spotlight has recently shifted its attention to Disney World and the awful tragedy that transpired at one of its resorts when an alligator attacked and killed a small child. While there are many questions, and much more to be learned, the most immediate question is how could this happen? While it is too early to assign legal blame, it is natural to look at the facts and ask if Disney provided proper warnings prior to this tragedy.

This question can be superimposed onto any company, park or public entertainment entity. When there is a possibility of an injury, what must the company do in order to adequately warn, or give notice, to the citizens using the facility or outdoor area? Using Disney as an example, it created an inviting, beach environment with lounge chairs and the safe, cheerful atmosphere one would expect from a Disney resort. According to news reports, "no swimming" signs were posted around the lagoon, but, allegedly, nothing in the area warning of wildlife, alligators, or any other imminent dangers. The ultimate question of liability will be whether Disney knew of this potential danger of alligator attacks and gave proper notice to its invitees.

Similarly, Illinois law states that a company must take the appropriate steps to keep its guests safe. This includes giving notice of any dangers or potentially dangerous conditions. Illinois courts have found that signs are a necessity in alerting citizens to the rules and regulations of a public place. Bowman v. The Chicago Park District, 2014 IL App (1st) 132122. In Bowman, a 13-year-old girl was injured at a Chicago park when she hurt herself on a broken slide. The park district argued that they were not liable because the park had been designated, by city ordinance, as a park for children 12 and younger. Because the 13-year-old plaintiff was not an intended user of the park, the trial court found the defendant to be free of liability and dismissed the case. The court of appeals reversed the judgment and stated that there must be proper notice to the attendees in order to release the park district from liability. In reversing, the court stated, "Playgrounds are designed for children. What would prompt a 13-year-old child to observe a slide and think, 'am I really the intended user of this slide?'".

The Bowman case demonstrates the importance of warnings for the protection of people from known dangers at a property. When it comes down to it, safety should be the number one priority for companies like Disney who invite millions of guests to its facilities. Companies need to anticipate all possible dangers and also be transparent in their attempts to keep the public safe with proper notice. This means clear warnings of known dangers. Without these warnings, needless tragedies will continue to destroy families.

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