The 1975 film Jaws is truly the first summer blockbuster. The film launched the career of Steven Spielberg as the grandmaster of epic adventure movies that could make people jump out of their seats. It also set Spielberg’s precedent for including a shooting star in his films.
And while a movie about a shark can result in unfortunate lawyer jokes, there is a very good question the film poses: Was Mayor Larry Vaughn and the Town of Amity negligent for keeping the beaches open after the first shark attack? Would the Mayor and Town of Amity have any defenses to a negligence lawsuit?
It’s time to set sail on a shark hunt and review the facts:
Let’s Go Swimming
The first victim in the film is Chrissie Watkins, a college girl who went skinny dipping on Amity Island after attending a beach party in May 1973.
Chrissie was accompanied to the water’s edge by Tom Cassidy, another college student who grew up on Amity. Tom is spared the fate of being a meal for a shark, due to the fact he was too drunk to go swimming. This might be the only time where drinking kept someone from dying (the odd corollary is that skinny dipping can be fatal). Unfortunately for Chrissie, Cassidy was passed out from the drinking and unable to hear Chrissie’s cries for help, preventing him from rendering any aid.
This Was No Boating Accident
The original autopsy report stated Chrissie’s cause of death was from a shark attack. This promptly causes the Chief of Police to close the beaches.
However, the Mayor countermands the Police Chief’s order to close the beaches. Moreover, the pathologist does an about face and changes his report to say Chrissie Watkins died of a boating accident.
There is an intense exchange between the Mayor and Police Chief over the importance of keeping the beaches open and the danger of yelling “shark” to the Island’s economy.
You Knew It Was Dangerous
Against the Police Chief’s wishes, the beaches are kept open. And on June 29, in view of the public, a dog named Pippet and a boy named Alex Kintner are victims two and three.
The very public death of Alex Kintner launches a major shark hunt by all the wrong people going out on boats for the bounty offered by his family (Remember, the carry capacity of a boat is length times beam, divided by 15. This rule is grossly ignored by many of the amateur shark hunters). In spite of horrifically poor seamanship, the want-a-be shark hunters actually catch a tiger shark without killing themselves.
What We Are Dealing With Here Is A Perfect Engine, An Eating Machine
Chief Brody brings in a shark expert named Matt Hooper, who contradicts the autopsy report saying Watkins died of a boating accident. Additionally, Hooper wants to cut open the tiger shark to find out if it was the shark that killed Alex Kintner.
The Mayor refuses to verify if the tiger shark indeed killed Alex Kintner. However, Brody and Hooper perform an autopsy themselves in the middle of the night to learn there was still a killer shark off Amity Island.
Hooper and Brody set out to sea to find evidence of the shark, only to find Ben Gardner’s chewed up boat. Hooper finds a giant shark tooth during an in-the-water investigation of the boat. However, Hooper dropped the tooth when Gardner’s decapitated head floated by his face.
Despite being confronted with Brody and Hooper’s report, the Mayor keeps the beaches open for the 4th of July, with additional lookouts for sharks.
4th of July Attack
As one can expect, the 4th of July goes horribly wrong, with a sailor in a dingy being killed and the Police Chief’s son being hospitalized for shock after a close encounter with the shark.
This final attack gave Brody the ability to force the Mayor to authorize Brody to hire Quint the shark hunter.
All Along the Shark Tower
The most on point case to the facts from Jaws is the 1976 case of Wamser v. St. Petersburg, 339 So. 2d 244 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 1976).
In Wamser, a minor was attacked by a shark at a public (and free) city beach. The boy was attacked by a shark while swimming with his father approximately 25 feet from shore and approximately 15 to 20 feet north of the lifeguard stand. Wamser, at *245. The father and son knew there were sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, but they did not know of any shark attacks at the beach. Id.
The beach lifeguard was about to investigate a shark sighting when the victim was attacked by the shark. Wamser, at *245.
Deposition testimony showed the District Recreation Supervisor had a 24 year history with the city beach. He had never heard of a shark attack over his employment with the city. Id.
Two lifeguards also testified that they had never seen a shark in the area and any reports had turned out to be porpoise sightings. Id.
Having no Florida case on point for injuries caused by wild animals in their natural habitat, the Court relied on a Texas case and the Restatement of Torts.
The general rule is “the law does not require the owner or possessor of land to anticipate the presence of or guard an invitee against harm from animals ferae naturae unless such owner or possessor has reduced the animals to possession, harbors such animals, or has introduced onto his premises wild animals not indigenous to the locality.” Wamser, at *246, citing Gowen v. Willenborg, Tex.Civ.App.1963, 366 S.W.2d 695; Williams v. Gibbs , 1971, 123 Ga.App. 677, 182 S.E.2d 164; Restatement of the Law of Torts, Ch. 20, § 508; 3A C.J.S. Animals § 174.
Based on the above, the Court held the following:
In the instant case there was nothing to indicate that the city had knowledge of a shark hazard. To the contrary, the record shows that the attack at a previously safe beach was unexpected. 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 an animal ferae naturae, 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 to indicate the necessity for obtaining such information.
Wamser, at *246.
Cage Goes in the Water, Man Goes in the Water, Shark’s in the Water (And A Lawyer is at the Courthouse)
Given the number of victims and case law pertaining to shark attacks, we can expect the following findings of liability:
Chrissie Watkins: No liability, based on Wamser v. St. Petersburg, 339 So. 2d 244 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 1976). There was no prior evidence of shark attacks in the area, thus no threats to put the Town on notice of a possible danger. To quote Warmser, “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 an animal ferae naturae, or to warn of such an occurrence.”
Alex Kintner: Big time liability for wrongful death. After the death of Chrissie Watkins, the Town was on actual notice of a threat of a shark. The Mayor’s act to keep the beaches open and arguably force the pathologist to change his findings from “shark attack” to “boating accident” could result in a finding of gross negligence, because it demonstrated a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care by not closing the beaches and warning swimmers about sharks. There arguably is criminal liability for the Mayor’s actions for reckless disregard for life that resulted in a child being eaten alive.
Pippet the Dog: Depending on state law, likely able to find the owner was owed compensation for the value of his dog on a destruction of property theory.
Ben Gardner: No liability on the doctrine of assumption of risk. Gardner went out looking for a giant shark for the purpose of killing it. This undertaking is inherently dangerous and was done under his own free will.
Sailor on 4th of July: Town likely would be liable for the death of the sailor, based on the same theory as Alex Kintner. Moreover, there was notice there was still a man-eating shark in local waters and the Mayor kept the beaches open.
There might be defenses for the town, because of the following:
1) The public was on notice of a shark threat after the first two attacks, so arguably the sailor assumed the risk of going out on the water;
2) There were shark watchers out, also putting the sailor on notice of the threat;
3) Arguably, the Mayor could claim he acted reasonably, because the Mayor never saw the large shark tooth from Ben Gardner’s boat (only Hooper saw it) and that the tiger shark hard been found.
However, the defenses might not hold water, given that Hooper did report the tooth to the Mayor and that Gardner had been killed by a shark. Moreover, the Mayor refused to have an autopsy on the tiger shark, arguably showing disregard for an expert’s opinion. Furthermore, Hooper’s opinion that the tiger shark did not kill Kintner was confirmed by the unauthorized autopsy before the 4th of July attack.
Quint the Grizzled Shark Hunter: As with Ben Gardner, assumption of risk should preclude any recovery from surviving family members.
Farewell and Adieu Fair Spanish Ladies
While not every victim can be considered a wrongful death case, several of the victims’ families would be entitled to compensation for the Mayor’s actions in responding to the shark attacks.
The blood in the water at any trial would cause a jury damages awarding frenzy based on the following:
1) The Town being on notice of the shark threat;
2) Changing the autopsy report from “shark attack” to “boating accident”;
3) The appearance the Mayor “influenced” the pathologist to change his report; and
4) Keeping the beaches open with the knowledge of the man-eating threat.
The case of Amity would be very different than Wamser v. St. Petersburg, because of the knowledge of the threat after the first attack on Chrissie Watkins. However, recovery would hinge on whether the victim was an invitee at a public beach or someone who assumed the risk by going on a shark hunt.
Additionally, given the risk in hunting sharks (an endangered species best left alone), I encourage those interested in oceanography to follow my example and simply have a clown fish. Remember, there are no known reports of clown fish attacks resulting in the death of a human being.