Some of you may have heard the tragic story of the American woman killed near Johannesburg, South Africa this week. She was visiting a game reserve, in this case a lion park where lions roam freely and guests can drive around and observe them. According to the police, she had lowered her window and the lionness attacked through the open window. The park claimed that they had posted signs warning people to keep their windows up.
This is a picture of the lion park I visited in Johannesburg many years ago. As you can see from the car in the right corner, you could potentially drive right up to the lions.
When someone is attacked by a animal, the owner of the animal is responsible for the harms caused if he or she did not take reasonable steps to protect the public. In the case of dog bites, we first have to establish that the owner knew or should known that his or her dog is a danger to others. Then we demonstrate that they failed keep the dog locked up or failed to warn someone who enters the area where the dog is kept. In the case of a lion, we already know lions are extremely dangerous, and our legal system would impose upon the park a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the public and to warn patrons of the danger.
In this case the park claimed to have posted notices warning people not to open their windows. If those notices were posted conspicuously, the park has probably met their duty.
Because the park is keeping particularly dangerous animals, the legislature in South Africa could place a greater duty on the park to protect visitors, which might include posting the warning on a flyer given to each entering vehicle or having each visitor sign a notice of said warning.
In this case, it is also interesting that the woman had a local tour guide with her. I think the tour guide might be facing some liability if he encouraged the woman to open her window or didn’t adequately warn the woman not to open the window. Additionally, if the tour guide were an employee of the lion park, the lion park would also be responsible for the actions of this guide.
Unfortunately, there is a temptation to open the windows when visiting the park because it does afford the visitor a more intimate view of the wild cats. I visited this park myself 25 years ago, (though my memory is faded and it could have been a different park around Johannesburg).
I can still remember the majesty of seeing these creatures up close.
As you can see, some in our party also rolled down the windows to get better views of the lions. I still remember seeing one of the lionnesses tense her muscles when our window rolled down. We were about 10 feet from the lions and rolled our windows up immediately when they started toward our car. Luckily, no one was injured on our trip. We had been given warnings about opening our windows when we entered the park and if one of us had been injured, it would have been solely our responsibility.