Are Business Owners Liable for Injuries to Guests Caused by Venomous Animals?

Author: Lena Pond

Arizona is home to many venomous animals, including six different species of venomous spiders and thirteen different species of venomous snakes. If a person is bitten by a venomous animal while on the property of another, is the property owner liable for the victim’s injuries?

This question was recently addressed in the Arizona Federal District Court case, Lackey v. Disney Vacation Development, Inc. 2015 WL 1505832 (D. Ariz. Apr. 1, 2015). In Lackey, a guest at a Disney Resort and Spa brought a negligence action against the resort to recover for injury sustained from a brown recluse spider bite and ensuing staphylococcus aureus infection.

The court analyzed Arizona’s premises liability law. The Court acknowledged a proprietor is only liable for injuries arising from a dangerous condition of the premises if the dangerous condition was caused by the proprietor or the proprietor had actual or constructive knowledge of its existence, citing McDonald v. Smitty’s Super Valu, Inc., 157 Ariz. 316, 757 P.2d 120, 122 (Ariz.Ct.App.1988) and Andrews v. Fry’s Food Stores of Ariz., 160 Ariz. 93, 770 P.2d 397, 399 Ariz.Ct.App.1989).

In this case, it was undisputed the resort did not create the dangerous condition at issue. Thus, the dispositive issue was whether the resort had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. A proprietor only has actual notice if the proprietor has notice of the specific dangerous condition itself and not merely if the proprietor has general notice of conditions producing the dangerous condition. Chiara v. Fry’s Food Stores of Ariz., Inc., 152 Ariz. 398, 733 P.2d 283, 285 (1987). In this case, the fact the resort simply had notice dangerous spiders existed on the property was insufficient to assign liability.

There was no evidence the resort has actual or constructive knowledge dangerous spiders existed in the guestrooms. One of the most important issues in determining constructive notice is the length of time a given condition has existed. Walker v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 20 Ariz.App. 255, 511 P.2d 699, 702 (1973). In this case, there was no evidence of how long the spider was in the plaintiffs’ room, nor was there any evidence there was an extensive problem with venomous spiders in the guestrooms or on the grounds of the resort.

The Court also analyzed the mode of operation rule and found it did not apply. The mode of operation rule focuses on a business’s particular mode of operation rather than the events of the accident. Under the mode of operation rule, there is no notice requirement if a proprietor could reasonably anticipate that the hazardous condition would regularly arise. In this case, the mode of operation rule would apply if the resort could have reasonably anticipated that venomous spiders would regularly be found in guestrooms at the resort. The plaintiffs would have needed to show evidence employees or guests had regularly seen venomous spiders in the guestrooms or venomous spiders could be found in large numbers in the area around the property. Here, no such evidence was presented.

Based on the above analysis, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the resort. Lackey was the first case to discuss liability for injuries caused by venomous animals in the wild. The take away from Lackey is that a business owner will only be liable for injuries caused by venomous animals on its property if it: (1) had actual notice of; (2) had constructive notice of; or (3) could have reasonably anticipated the existence of the venomous animal in the area where the guest was injured.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lena Pond is a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She specializes in insurance defense, insurance coverage disputes, insurance bad faith, professional liability, and general civil litigation. Contact her at 602.386.5654 or lpond@tysonmendes.com.

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