Beware the allure of next-door property—liability lurks

Karen Morris
Karen Morris

Karen Morris

Like the mystique that surrounds the boy or girl next door, an attraction on a property adjacent to your facility may beckon your guests. It might be waterfront, a wooded area, walking paths, a playground, a construction site or other amusements. It would be intuitive to conclude that since those nearby properties are not part of your facility, you owe no duty of care to your guests should they explore those areas. This would be an error. A Marriott hotel and the Ritz-Carlton Management Company learned this recently the hard way.

The case involved the Abaco Golf Club (hereafter “the Club”) affiliated with a Marriott Vacation Resort in the Bahamas and operated by Ritz-Carlton Management Company1. The Club is located on a peninsula that ends at an overlook on a cliff surrounded by volcanic rock formations, dubbed “the Point.” The Club does not own the Point but it is accessible from land owned by the Club. The access is via a rough trail that intersects with a golf path. Guests were often enticed to the overlook by its vistas. The Club had not installed fencing or other barriers to restrict access, or signage to warn of the cliff.

A golfer walked to the Point to take photos and, alas, fell to his death. His family sued claiming negligence and seeking damages exceeding $4 million. The jury’s verdict found the plaintiff 99-percent liable and the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton only 1-percent responsible. The deceased’s estate was thus awarded no money. But it didn't end there. The family appealed. The court set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial. But why?

A well-worn rule of law provides that hospitality facilities owe their guests a duty to use reasonable care to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition. The court in this case, applying Florida law, held that this obligation encompassed another requiring maintenance of one’s own property so as to protect guests from foreseeable dangers that exist on an adjacent property. Further, the court opined that posting a warning sign may not be sufficient. The judge seemed to be looking for more aggressive precautions such as a fence barring access, signs in multiple locations (front desk, in-room, near your property line closest to the danger) and other precautions suitable to the circumstances.

Therefore, while the Club owed no duty to the deceased while he was at the Point, nor to maintain that area in a safe condition since the Club did not own it, the Club did have an obligation to maintain its own property in a manner that reasonably protected its guests from dangers existing at the Point. True, even though the hazards presented by the cliffs and rocks were obvious to anyone approaching the area, including the deceased man. The new jury will address whether the Club met this duty.

The point here is this: If nearby properties owned by others are likely to attract your guests, and if dangers lurk there, take reasonable steps at your facility to warn and protect your patrons against those neighboring perils.