Posted on Oct 26, 2023

Sun City Hilton Head Community Faces Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Fatal Alligator Attack

Sign near scene of alligator attack hilton headIn a tragic incident that has once again thrown the spotlight on the safety measures within gated communities, the family of Nancy Ann Jackson Becker, an 88-year-old resident of Sun City, has initiated legal action against the Hilton Head community for wrongful death. Becker died after a nearly 10-foot male alligator rushed out of a pond and attacked her August 15, 2022. The family alleges that the community and its administrators failed to adequately protect residents from such deadly risks.

How the Fatal Alligator Attack in Hilton Head Occurred

Nancy Becker was doing some garden work outside her home in Sun City when she lost her footing and slipped into the edge of a nearby pond. An alligator must have been close by, and it attacked her almost instantaneously. The lawsuit targets multiple entities, including Sun City Hilton Head Community Association; its parent firm, Del Webb Communities, Inc.; and Tammy Hayes, a person responsible for common area maintenance in the adult-only community located in Okatie, SC, which is located just down the road from Bluffton, SC and Hilton Head Island, SC.

Maintenance and Upkeep at Sun City Under Scrutiny

Central to the lawsuit is the role of Tammy Hayes, whose job responsibilities include the upkeep of pond areas and oversight of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permits that allow limited culling of alligators. The lawsuit asserts that Hayes inadequately executed the responsibilities tied to these permits, thereby enabling the growth of a more substantial alligator population that jeopardized the safety of residents—residents like Ms. Becker.

A Troubling Pattern of Alligator Attacks in Hilton Head Island, SC

This recent legal action adds to an expanding list of alligator attacks in Beaufort County and, more specifically, Hilton head.

Alligator Attacks Elsie Kyle in Hilton Head Plantation in September 2021

In September 2021, 82-year-old Elsie Kyle was walking her little dog near her home when an 8-foot alligator lunged out of the water. As Kyle tried to escape, she fell, and the alligator bit down across her legs. She miraculously survived the alligator attack, but she has suffered permanent injuries and has difficulty walking without assistance. She brought a lawsuit against Hilton Head Plantation and The Rookery neighborhood claiming damages for "permanent injuries and disability" following the alligator attack.

Fatal Alligator Attack of Cassandra “Cassie” Cline in Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head

In August of 2018, 45-year-old Cassandra Cline was walking her dog near the Sea Pines Lagoon in Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head, SC when a 9-foot alligator attacked her. The gator lunged out of the water and grabbed her dog’s leash. That’s when she fought back to save her dog. Unfortunately, the alligator got a hold of her and dragged her under the water. She died as a result of the alligator attack. In 2019, her family filed a wrongful death suit against Sea Pines Resort and its associated entities for the death of Ms. Cline.

Alligator Attacks and Kills Holly Jenkins in Spanish Wells on July 4, 2023

On July 4, 2023, 69-year-old Holly Jenkins suffered fatal injuries after being attacked by an alligator in Spanish Wells while walking her dog. Reports say her family noticed the dog walking by itself outside. When they went to search for her, they found her body face down in the water, still being attacked by the 9-foot alligator.  

While the frequency of such incidents has seen a gradual increase over the past ten years, laws safeguarding the animals and their habitats have simultaneously stabilized their populations. Despite these laws allowing for the killing of alligators that harm humans, relocating alligators remains illegal in South Carolina according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

Legal and Safety Implications

The Becker family’s wrongful death lawsuit emphasizes the growing concern over the balance between natural ecosystems and human habitation, particularly in Hilton Head’s gated communities where folks live in close proximity to wildlife. With an increasing number of alligator attacks, these lawsuits could set a precedent for how communities and property management companies should deal with the risks posed by alligators. Namely, these communities might begin to take gators and gator attacks more seriously.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit After a Family Member is the Victim of an Alligator Attack in South Carolina

If your loved one is killed by an alligator in South Carolina, you may have the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. Just like any other type of personal injury lawsuit, you need to be able to show that somebody did something wrong (somebody acted negligently), and you have to be able to show that those negligent actions or inactions led to the death of your loved one.

Typically, when you’re alleging negligence against a community, like Sea Pines, Sun City, Hilton Head Plantation, Shipyard, Palmetto Dunes, or any other Hilton Head community where a loved one is the victim of an alligator attack, the focus will be on the “unreasonably safe condition” of the premises. Thus, the allegations in the wrongful death lawsuit might include language like this:

  • Unsafe Condition: The community (whether it’s Sun City, Sea Pines, or some other community) allowed an unreasonably hazardous condition and an unsafe condition to exist. In other words, having giant or aggressive alligators on the property without killing them or otherwise neutralizing them, so the argument goes, is allowing a dangerous condition to exist.
  • Failing to Take Safety Measures: A wrongful death lawsuit for an alligator attack might also allege that the community failed to take appropriate action to prevent alligator attacks on the property. Here, you’re alleging that the community should have done something (i.e., get the alligator out of there).
  • Failure to Warn: Another allegation in a South Carolina wrongful death lawsuit for an alligator attack may focus on the community’s failure to warn of danger or an “unsafe condition” or “hazardous condition.” The focus of this allegation is that the victim didn’t know about the danger because the community failed to warn the victim (think signs around a pond), and had the victim known that there were large or aggressive gators, the victim might not have been attacked.  
  • Failure to Remedy a Known Hazardous Condition: A wrongful death lawsuit might also allege that the community should have done something about the alligator once it knew about it. In other words, once someone working at the community spotted the giant alligator that attacked Ms. Becker, the community should have taken actions to remove it. If the community argues it didn’t know about the alligator, the counterargument is that it “should have known.” After all, folks are all over the property all the time for maintenance. Thus, the community can’t simply claim ignorance; they should have known about it. At least, that’s how to construct the argument.
  • Failure to Follow Policies and Procedures: Another allegation in a South Carolina alligator attack case for wrongful death might focus on the company or community’s failure to follow its own rules. For example, say there was something written in the company’s policies and procedures that said something like this: “If you spot an alligator between 5 and 8 feet long, report it to John Doe for removal.” Well, we know the alligator that killed Ms. Becker was somewhere just shy of 10 feet long. In this hypothetical situation, you would allege that the company failed to follow its own rules regarding dangerous alligators, further evidence of negligence.
Ultimately, the allegations in a lawsuit will depend on the facts. However, much of this language will be repeated from case-to-case because these allegations are the basis of an alligator attack claim in South Carolina. Thus, regardless of which lawyer or law firm is on the case, you’ll see this language and these allegations repeated with some unique case facts sprinkled in.