When May a Hotel Be Held Responsible for a Drowning Death?


At Disney resorts in Orlando, Florida and Anaheim, California, swimming pools are available to hotel guests. In March 2013, CNN reported that a drowning death had occurred in one of the Disney pools in Florida.

“The fatal accident raises important questions concerning the liability of resort hotels in the United States,” explained California wrongful death lawyer James Ballidis.

The death occurred at a time when no lifeguards were on duty. The boy who was killed, 13-year-old Anthony Johnson, had been playing at the swimming pool with his friends. Relatives were watching him. The boys were jumping in and out of the water. There was a sign at the swimming pool at the time warning swimmers that they were swimming at their own risk.

Anthony Johnson slipped underwater. He was pulled out within minutes when relatives noticed that he was missing, and volunteer firefighters who were guests on vacation at the resort immediately came over to perform CPR on the boy. Unfortunately, it was too late to save him.

In response to the tragic death, Disney issued a statement expressing their sorrow about the event and indicating that they had reached out to the family to offer care and assistance. Questions remain, however, about what liability, if any, Disney may face as a result of the accidental death.

Resort Liability for Drowning Deaths

Laws regarding the obligations of hotels and resorts differ from state-to-state but all states impose certain basic safety requirements. While there is not necessarily any requirement that a hotel have a lifeguard on duty, there usually is a mandate that a hotel post a warning if guests are to swim at their own risk.

In California, for example, Health and Safety Code section 116049.1 defines as a public swimming pool swimming pools located on the grounds of hotels. Health and Safety Code 116045 (a) mandates certain safety provisions:
“Lifeguard service shall be provided for any public swimming pool that is of wholly artificial construction and for the use of which a direct fee is charged. For all other public swimming pools, lifeguard service shall be provided or signs shall be erected clearly indicating that the service is not provided.”

A case called Haft v. Lone Palm Hotel established the precedent that a hotel could be liable for the drowning death of hotel guests if they fell short of certain safety requirements, including a failure to post a warning sign indicating that there was no lifeguard present.

The absence or presence of a lifeguard, however, is not the only deciding factor in determining whether a hotel bears responsibility to a guest for a pool accident. In the same case, for example, the hotel had also failed to mark the depth of the swimming pool; failed to mark the edges of the pool; and failed to post warnings indicating that children should refrain from using the pool without adult supervision. The court indicated that the hotel also fell short because they did not have diagrams near the pool illustrating the artificial respiration process and they did not have the telephone number of the nearest ambulance or rescue service posted near the pool. These failures made the hotel automatically negligent as a matter of law.

Based on this case, California laws and subsequent court decisions, there are several key factors that go into determining whether or not a hotel is liable for a drowning accident:

1. Failing to provide rescue/first aid or safety equipment or instructions.
2. Failing to ensure the pool is filled to a safe level with a sufficient amount of water
3. Failing to have markings identifying the depth of the pool
4. Failing to provide adequate lighting at the pool
5. Failing to post appropriate warning signs
6. Failing to secure the swimming pool to prevent unregulated access
7. Failing to remove dangerous objects from the pool

A hotel that fails in these areas can be held responsible for drowning accidents even if they have a sign indicating people may swim at their own risk.

Disney’s Liability

In the case of the tragic death that recently occurred at the Disney resort, the question of whether the resort is liable or not will center on whether the resort fell short in any way in their obligations under Florida law.

If the hotel was negligent or lax in its safety rules, they could potentially be sued for wrongful death arising from the drowning of the young visitor.

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