Many associations in Florida are situated near unimproved properties left in their natural condition, often referred to as conservation areas or preserves. While these areas typically offer beautiful views of pristine nature, and serve as habitats for native plants and wildlife, they may also become the source of a complicated legal quandry for many associations: what to do about the possibility of wild animals damaging property or injuring people. As human populations grow and natural habitats shrink, encounters with wildlife roaming the streets of our neighborhoods is an increasingly common phenomenon. While most of these encounters are fleeting and result in no real harm, we are all familiar with the stories of bears climbing trees in residential neighborhoods, alligators swimming in pools and terrorizing house pets, the python slithering around in a plant nursery, raccoons ripping open garbage bags and chasing children and small pets, and even the occasional wild boars rooting up yards and charging at curious onlookers. So, what should an association do to protect its members and property from wildlife, if anything, and what are the possible consequences?
First, it might surprise most people to know that generally, one does not have an obligation to warn others about the dangers of animals in their natural habitat or protect others from wild animal attacks. For example, in the case of Wamser v. City of St. Petersburg, 339 So.2d 244 (Fla. 2d DCA 1976), a Florida appellate court held that the City of St. Petersburg, acting as the land owner of a beach, could not be held responsible for shark attacks occurring in the waters of that beach. Similarly in St. Joseph’s Hospital v. Cowart, 891 So.2d 1039 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004), another court, relying on the Wamser decision, held that there was no negligence on the part of a hospital that allowed a spider to infiltrate one of its buildings and bite a person within the hospital. However, in these cases, the courts did note that although there was no affirmative duty to protect anybody from injuries resulting from the activities of wild animals either in their natural habitats or invading human facilities, if the land owner became aware of the problem, it then could become liable to protect persons on its property from reasonably foreseeable harm resulting from these wild animals’ activities. So, even if your association has, or borders, a conservation area, it has no obligation to warn others about the dangers of wild animal attacks unless it has become aware of a specific problem (e.g., a particular bear wandering into the neighborhood repeatedly) and done nothing about it prior to someone sustaining an injury, property damage, or other loss.
Under those circumstances, it may seem like common sense to be proactive and take steps to warn others about the possibility of an animal attack, even if there have been no prior disturbances caused by wild animals, just in case it might happen some day in the future. Unfortunately, if an association does voluntarily undertake the responsibility of warning or trying to protect others from wild animals, it may become liable if the warning or precautions are not sufficient and somebody is injured or suffers a loss. For example, in the case of Seelbinder v. County of Volusia, 827 So.2d 1095, 1097 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002), a Florida appellate court indicated that although a party may not have an obligation to warn about another act of nature (in this case, lightning strikes), if that party voluntarily undertook the responsibility to warn visitors of this danger, it could be held liable if the warnings were inadequate. In other words, trying to protect others from nature may expose an association to liability.
Fortunately, the number of encounters between humans and wild animals is still relatively small. Even if a community is situated next to a conservation area or a body of water that could harbor wild animals, it is generally in an association’s best interests to do nothing until a problem presents itself. Otherwise, your association may actually put itself at unnecessary risk if something does occur. Only after wild animals infiltrate a community and begin to pose a threat to people or property should an association take steps to warn and protect. Of course, if an animal is spotted and the situation appears to be an emergency, the best option is to call 911.