May 22, 2024

Rulin’ on the River: Florida’s Body of Water Rule in Wrongful Death Cases Involving Children

Imagine a tranquil day in Florida, where the sun glistens on the serene waters of the Hillsborough River. While seemingly peaceful, this picturesque scene became the backdrop of a tragic event leading to a critical legal decision, reinforcing Florida’s body-of-water rule in wrongful death cases, reaffirming the principle that a river, even with its inherent risks, is not considered an unusual danger under Florida law. 

On May 10, 2024, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal upheld a summary judgment in the case of Feliciano v. Rivertree Landings Apartments, LLC and First Communities Management (No. 2D2023-0561). The case involved the heartbreaking drowning of a six-year-old autistic child in the Hillsborough River, adjacent to the apartment complex where the child lived.   

Understanding the Case 

The tragic incident occurred when the minor child, who required constant supervision due to severe autism, slipped out of the apartment unsupervised. Surveillance footage captured the child walking towards the river, which was not fenced off from the apartment grounds. Despite the steep slope, uneven shoreline, and the presence of alligators, the Court ruled that these factors did not impose a specific duty on the apartment complex to erect a barrier or warn residents. 

Plaintiff’s complaint argued that the apartment complex had a duty to provide a safe environment, which they allegedly breached by not sectioning off the river area, failing to maintain barriers, and not warning about the dangers. Defense counsel, while agreeing on several factual points—including the steep slope and the presence of alligators—argued successfully that these conditions are typical of Florida rivers and do not constitute unusual dangers requiring additional safety measures. 

Legal Precedent 

The Court’s decision aligns with established Florida case law, notably the Allen v. William P. McDonald Corp. (1949) ruling, which states that property owners are not liable for drownings in natural bodies of water unless there is an unusual danger or a condition constituting a trap. This principle holds regardless of the victim’s status as an invitee, trespasser, or resident, and even applies in tragic cases involving children. 

In Saga Bay Property Owners Ass’n v. Askew (1987), it was further clarified that there is no liability for a child’s drowning in a body of water unless an unusual danger or trap is present. The Feliciano case reaffirmed that, in the absence of such conditions, property owners have no duty to fence off or post warnings about natural bodies of water. 

Implications for Insurance Professionals 

This ruling carries significant implications for insurance adjusters, claims professionals, and insurance executives. It underscores the necessity of thoroughly evaluating whether a duty was imposed on defendants in wrongful death cases involving bodies of water. Understanding the nuances of the body-of-water rule can guide the defense in similar cases, ensuring that legal strategies are aligned with established precedents. 

We Can Help You Evaluate These Cases 

At Kelley Kronenberg, we recognize the complexity and sensitivity of wrongful death cases involving natural bodies of water. Our expansive knowledge and vast experience in defending such cases gives us the foundation we need to properly advise you regarding the proper course of action in the face of body-of-water claims. If you need a case evaluated based on Florida’s body-of-water rule, reach out to me, Catherine V. Arpen, for a consultation at (904) 443-9751 or  

Let me help you ensure that justice is served, based on a clear understanding of legal duties and established case law. 

Catherine Arpen, Esq.
Partner, General Liability & Third-Party Insurance Defense
Kelley Kronenberg-Jacksonville, FL
(904) 549-7700