Shark Encounters and Shark Bite-Related Injuries in North Carolina
Charlotte, NC Personal Injury Lawyer
To the horror of many, shark attacks have been making headlines in North Carolina this season. To date, seven incidents have occurred within the state, several of which have taken place in shallow waters—only knee deep to a child.
The first incident this season was on May 15 at Sullivan’s Island, when a thirty-year-old man was bitten while in waist-deep waters. He was dragged a short distance and suffered a deep laceration to his foot.
A thirteen-year-old girl also suffered a laceration on her foot when she was bitten on June 11, at Ocean Isle Beach. The most serious injuries occurred within ninety minutes of each other, just three days later. On June 14, at Oak Island, a twelve-year-old and a sixteen-year-old were independently attacked by a shark or sharks. Both minor victims’ injuries required amputation of an arm.
The number of victims grew again on Wednesday, June 24, when an eight-year-old was bitten. He suffered only small cuts and no serious or permanent injury.
The most recent three attacks took place within the last week. On June 26, a forty-seven-year-old man was bitten multiple times on the back, but escaped without life-threatening injuries. The following day, June 27, an eighteen-year-old bitten on his hands, leg, and buttocks while swimming off the Outer Banks. Finally, a man in his late sixties was attacked in Ocracoke in the Outer Banks just yesterday.
Despite the surge in shark-related injuries, Town Manager Larry Bergman of Surf City, N.C. has been reluctant to post warning signs. Some might be wondering, “Shouldn’t they be doing something?” Even in this digital age, where word spreads not only through traditional news sources but innumerable forms of social media, shouldn’t the cities and counties that control the beaches be taking action to warn beachgoers?
When Warnings are Required
To consider this kind of issue, one has to understand a little bit about “premises liability,” that is the duty of care an entity owes someone who is on his/her/its land.
Visitors to property are traditionally classified into three groups: trespassers, licensees and invitees. A trespasser is one who is on some land without permission. A possessor of land—that is the person who occupies or controls the land—has only a very limited duty to those on his land without permission. If the possessor knows that a trespasser is on the land, or if trespass is common or continuous, he must warn trespassers of dangerous artificial (typically manmade) conditions that exist.
Those visiting property with permission fall into two categories, licensees and invitees. A Licensee is one who has permission to be on the land, but who is there for his own purposes, who is there by a favor of the possessor. Licensees include members of the possessor’s household, and social guests. A possessor has a duty to refrain from endangering a licensees, or to warn them of a concealed danger of which the possessor has knowledge. (Of course, a possessor cannot be grossly negligent, willful or wanton in endangering a licensee, either.)
Finally, an invitee is a business visitor, or a member of the public where the premises has been opened to the public. A city which furnishes a public beach then, will expect invitees to frequent the beach. A possessor owes an invitee a heightened duty of care—not only warning of known dangers, but a duty to discover dangerous conditions and remedying them.
Shark Bite Victim and City Liability: A Historic Florida Case Example
A 1976 Florida case considered the question of city responsibility for shark-related injuries when a minor plaintiff was attached by a shark while swimming in waters adjacent to a city-operated beach. Wamser v. City of St. Petersburg, 339 So.2d 244, 246 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1976). The District Court of Appeal of Florida, Second District found that the City was not liable to the swimmer because the duty owed an invitee applies only to artificial conditions, not natural conditions. The Court stated:
“We have found no Florida case dealing with owners’ or possessor’s liability for injuries inflicted by wild animals in their natural habitat. The rule is that generally the law does not require the owner or possessor of land to anticipate the presence of or guard an invitee against harm from [wild] animals.”
Instead, the court held:
In the absence of reasonable foreseeability of the danger, there was no duty on the part of the city to guard an invitee against an attack by a [wild] animal . . . or to warn of such an occurrence. . . . Nor was the city under a duty to obtain information from local agencies to determine the frequency with which sharks appeared in and around the beach area, since there was no attack on record in the history of the beach.”
Developments in Florida Law and Sovereign Immunity
Another layer to this type of question concerns governmental or “sovereign” immunity. Cities and other government entities are often immune from civil liability for negligence. Since the 1976 case declaring that though not immune, the city was not liable, Florida has since implemented, by statute, the systematic and uniform use of warning flags and signs to inform swimmers of potentially dangerous natural conditions, like riptides. Fla. Stat. Ann. § 380.276 (West). However within that effort, the state exempted government entities from liability for injuries arising from natural conditions even in the absence of warning flags. The very same law that outlines the legislative intent to improve beach safety statutorily exempts the state, “state agencies, local and regional government entities or authorities, and their individual employees and agents” from liability stemming from changing surf or “other naturally occurring conditions along coastal areas, whether or not uniform warning and safety flags . . . are posted.”
The North Carolina Question
Of course, this judicial and legislative law applies only in Florida. There have been no cases in North Carolina attempting to assign liability for injury from a naturally occurring condition, like riptides or sharks. But following the logic of Florida courts in this matter, now that there have been a number of attacks in North Carolina, is it not reasonably foreseeable that it could happen again such that beachgoers should be warned? And even if it is, is the government immune from liability?
North Carolina Shark Attacks and Foreseeability
With respect to the foreseeability, excepting the two attacks that occurred within ninety minutes in the same location, the shark encounters have been spread out along the extensive North Carolina Coast. To further put it into perspective, in the same period where six encounters in North Carolina have caused virtual panic, there have been over 200 encounters in Florida. It is therefore unlikely that, even with a higher frequency of occurrences this season in North Carolina, a subsequent attack after a singular (and unprecedented) attack at any one beach is unlikely to rise to the level of reasonable foreseeability. Moreover, though Surf City, for example, has chosen not to warn its beachgoers, it has increased patrols of the area. Without a precedent to apply, there is no clear line of when an attack would become foreseeable such that a municipality would become liable for failing to warn the public invitees at the beach of a natural condition.
North Carolina and Sovereign Immunity
If another attack did occur at the same beach, and the beachgoer had not been warned of the danger that the possessing government entity had been aware, would that entity be potentially liable? North Carolina law states a county may “insure itself and its officers, agents or employees against liability for wrongful death or negligent or intentional damage to person or property . . . .” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 153A-435 (West). However, if the county chooses to insure itself, in so doing it also waives the county’s governmental immunity to the extent of the insurance coverage. Thus, if a county is protected, it is also potentially vulnerable to liability for negligence.
Safety and Education
As always, the best policy for a beachgoer is to be aware of possible dangers and take his or her own precautions. In addition to familiarizing oneself with any system of warning flags used in the area, checking the news, and having adequate swimming skills, there are some precautions that can minimize the risk of an encounter with a shark. The Florida Museum of Natural Hisotry has published information and suggestions on its website: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/education/questions/Attack.html#avoid
Contact the Personal Injury Law Firm of Bice Law
The personal injury firm of Bice Law will examine your case to determine the type and amount of damages that your injury warrants, including payments for medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering, and any permanent disability. We’ll determine whether an out-of-court settlement or trial is the best strategy to obtain maximum benefits for you or your family. If you have suffered injury or harm because of someone else’s actions, take the first step to protect your legal rights – contact the personal injury firm of Bice Law serving both North and South Carolina. You only have a limited time after your injury to file a claim, so act quickly. Call 877-BICE-877 today or submit an online request to get a free consultation with a personal injury attorney. We serve families across both North Carolina and South Carolina.