Disney faces PR crisis, risk of legal
action after gator attack
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[June 17, 2016]
By Lisa Richwine and Karen Freifeld
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - June was
supposed to have been a triumphant month for Walt Disney Co theme parks,
with the flashy opening of a long-planned resort in Shanghai and a new
Florida attraction based on its wildly popular animated movie "Frozen."
Instead, the company is facing a public relations crisis and the
possibility of legal action after an alligator snatched and killed a
toddler at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida, legal
and communications experts said.
"When people think of Disney they think of magic, the unbelievable,
and everything is going to be fun. This incident flies in the face
of that," said Sam Singer, a crisis communications manager who
represented the San Francisco Zoo after a tiger escaped and killed a
teenage boy there in 2007.
The alligator tragedy unfolded on Tuesday evening, as many top
Disney officials were halfway around the globe to launch the
Shanghai park that had been in the works for 17 years. The company
reaction was swift.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger called the boy's family and publicly
offered condolences. George Kalogridis, president of Walt Disney
World, flew back to Florida from Shanghai. And a statement of
sympathy from Kalogridis was posted on the official Disney Parks
The boy's family has not said it will file suit, saying in a public
statement that they are "devastated" and thanking "local authorities
and staff who worked tirelessly" after the attack.
But the possibility of a lawsuit makes Disney's response more
complicated, experts said. "The more they say, the more liability
they could potentially create for themselves," Singer said.
"They are low key, contrite and helpful," Juda Engelmayer, a crisis
manager at 5W PR, said of Disney's response. "That's all they can do
at the moment."
Disney plans to open its "Frozen" attraction at Epcot next week as
scheduled, a spokeswoman said, though it has canceled a press event
to preview the ride.
Several legal experts differed in their assessments of Disney's
potential legal liability in the attack, but most agreed the company
would have a strong impetus to quickly settle any case.
They said one potential problem for the company could be that,
despite creating an inviting beach environment with lounge chairs,
Disney didn't post specific warnings about alligators, instead
posting "no swimming" signs.
"These people are from Nebraska and I can guarantee never once did
they think they were in any type of danger letting their child wade
in six inches (15 cm) of water," said Orlando personal injury lawyer
Lou Pendas, who has represented individuals in cases against Disney.
Disney plans to install new signs warning of alligators in the area,
a person familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
Pendas said he could only recall one other alligator attack in the
45 years that Disney has been operating in Florida, in the 1980s
when an alligator bit an eight-year-old boy, who survived.
But, Pendas said, the rarity of such attacks did not relieve Disney
[to top of second column]
A search boat passes Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings Chapel in the
Seven Seas Lagoon, located near the Grand Floridian, as police
hunted for signs of a 2-year-old boy who was dragged by an alligator
into the lagoon at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida,
U.S., June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
"This is unbelievably rare but could easily have been avoided by
proper signage and perhaps building a retention wall to keep the
alligators off the beach," he said. "The law says you have to take
appropriate steps to keep your invitees safe."
A Disney spokeswoman did not respond to questions about potential
In a lawsuit that followed a 2009 alligator attack in which an Ohio
man, James Wiencek, lost his arm while golfing at South Carolina's
Fripp Island Resort, defense lawyers argued that legal doctrine
dating back to Roman times held landowners could not be held
responsible for the acts of wild animals.
They also argued the danger of alligators in a coastal region of
South Carolina was so well-known and obvious the golfer himself
should have exercised greater care.
The case settled for an undisclosed amount before trial in 2013.
Stanford Law Professor Nora Freeman Engstrom said that Disney had a
duty to protect visitors from danger and that wording and placement
of the signs would be carefully looked at if the case went to trial.
The company could argue that the incident was not foreseeable and
that the sign was adequate, she said. But she predicted the case
would not go to trial.
"The bottom line is that they have a child whose body was snatched
from the parents" as they watched, she said. "I don't think it is
the kind of case where you want to be arguing the ... subtle details
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, Karen Freifeld and
Anthony Lin in New York and Peter Henderson in San Francisco;
Editing by Peter Henderson and Sandra Maler)
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