ATLANTA — The family of an elderly woman fatally mauled by an 8-foot alligator as she searched for her daughter's dog told the state's high court Monday that the neighborhood homeowners association should have removed the reptiles from the area.
The mangled body of 83-year-old Gwyneth Williams was found in October 2007 in a lagoon in the exclusive Landings Association neighborhood on south Georgia's Skidway Island. An autopsy found Williams died of massive bleeding caused by the 130-pound gator's attack. Williams' heirs asked the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday to rule that the association should have taken steps to remove the gator.
But the homeowners association and the golf course, which jointly own the lagoon where Williams' body was found, said they shouldn't be held liable for animals that wander onto the property. Gators roam freely, and controlling their movement would be almost impossible, they said.
"Their existence there cannot be prevented short of paving it over or putting a fence around it, ideas that are either illegal or not feasible," said John Foster, an attorney for the homeowners association.
Williams was house-sitting for her daughter and son-in-law when one of the dogs went missing, said family attorney Robert Turner. She went looking for the dog around 9 p.m., and several boys soon reported hearing a woman crying for help.
The next morning, Williams' body was found floating in a nearby lagoon.
Her family sued the association, claiming its failure to round up all the alligators led to Williams' death. They said the island's owners created a system of 151 lagoons and waterways to drain the water from low-lying areas that not only allowed thousands of people to live there, but also made it popular with gators.
Turner said that made the attack a problem that could have been prevented. He said residents and workers grew accustomed to spotting gators prowling the property, and that some of the gators were known to sunbathe on golf course bunkers near where Williams was staying.
"They created this environment," Turner said. "It's a perfect habitat for alligators. It's a perfect place."
But the landowners said they were protected by a long-held legal doctrine that protects landowners from any harm caused by a wild animal that wanders onto the land. Foster said workers carefully monitor each lagoon for alligators and respond to calls from residents complaining of the animals. The community removed 91 large or aggressive alligators from the property in the span of about four and a half years, he said, but there was little they could do to block the animals from wandering onto the island.
"If you go walking around at night, you don't know what you might find."