Suarez v. City of Texas City – Liability for Drowning Deaths at Public Beach

All land owners – whether public or private – owe some duty of care to those who enter. The degree of that duty depends not only on the type of establishment, but also the nature of the visit.beach1.jpg

For example, business owners owe the highest duty of care to members of the public who enter to patronize that establishment. However, if a trespasser enters a private property unlawfully, private property owners owe a minimal duty of care not to intentionally inflict harm or avoid gross negligence where they know those trespassers may be on site. (The rules are slightly different when there is an attractive nuisance – such as swimming pool or abandoned appliances – and the trespassers are children.)

Owners of public property also owe a duty of care to those who enter. However, most states – including South Carolina – have a “recreational use statute.” These measures are intended to encourage land owners to make property available for public recreational use by limiting liability should something happen on that property.

So for example, South Carolina’s Recreational Use Statute allows that a property owner owes no duty of care to keep the property safe or to warn of dangerous conditions on site if the property has been opened for recreational use by the public. Our Rock Hill wrongful death lawyers know property owner still must avoid gross negligence or intentional harm, but essentially it lowers the status of the visitor from invitee to trespasser. That means there is a much higher burden of proof in order to succeed in premises liability cases involving these types of claims.

This was the case in Suarez v. City of Texas City, before the Texas Supreme Court.

Litigation was sparked by an unimaginable tragedy. A woman lost her entire family – husband and two twin 9-year-old girls – shortly after arriving to spend a family day at man-made beach at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. All three drowned.

The incident happened adjacent to an area where a dike was created 100 years earlier. Because currents carried silt into the man-made channel, frequent dredging was required to keep the area navigable. Although originally only used for large ships, the area was opened as a public beach in the 1960s. Amenities like restrooms, picnic shelters, parking areas and piers were added later. So too were a number of signs that warned in both English and Spanish against swimming and diving, noting the presence of an undertow from passing ships, rip currents and sink holes and noting no lifeguard was on duty.

After a hurricane hit the area, considerable damage was done to the beach, its amenities and signs. The beach was closed to the public for nearly two years for repairs. When it reopened, the city did not replace all of the previous warning signs that had been up.

In the area where this incident happened, there was no sign warning against swimming or of an undertow. It was a windy day, the water was choppy and the tide was high.

As soon as the family arrived, the two girls rushed into the water up to their knees. They were still in their street clothes. However very soon after, they were seen struggling to stay afloat in deeper water, just 10 feet from the shore. Their father and another man rushed in to save them. However, the father and both girls drowned as they were swept further from shore.

A coastal engineer would later note the the surface of the submerged beach was “noticeably slippery” and the girls had been caught in a rip current.

Plaintiff – the surviving wife and mother – sued the city, alleging it had actual or constructive knowledge of a hidden, dangerous condition in the water and was therefore grossly negligent in creating the beach, allowing swimming in the area, failing to provide warning signs about the dangerous condition and failing to conduct studies about the existence of such dangers.

While the government would normally waive its sovereign immunity for injuries to invitees for which any other property owner would face liability, it’s different when the property is used for recreational purposes, as this was. Texas, too, has a recreational use statute that effectively lowers the status of the visitor and makes the entity liable only if there is proof of gross negligence.

Here, that meant the city was not required to warn beachgoers of dangers – even if it knew of them. Further, the city asserted the fact that it did post some warning signs as evidence it did not act with conscious indifference to the danger.

Trial court granted summary judgment, and the Texas Supreme Court ultimately affirmed.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Suarez v. City of Texas City, June 19, 2015, Texas Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Williams v. City of Omaha – Police Liability for Crash After Chase, July 15, 2015, Rock Hill Injury Attorney Blog

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