Can dolphins be defendants?

By Legal Eagle

From Reuters:

A woman is suing a Chicago-area zoo for a 2008 fall near a dolphin exhibit, accusing zookeepers of encouraging the mammals to splash water and then failing to protect spectators from wet surfaces, local media reported on Thursday.

In her suit filed earlier this week, Allecyn Edwards said she was injured while walking near an exhibit at Brookfield Zoo, where a group of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were performing, media said.

Officials “recklessly and willfully trained and encouraged the dolphins to throw water at the spectators in the stands, making the floor wet and slippery,” but failed to post warning signs or lay down protective mats or strips, the suit said, according to the reports.

Edwards is demanding more than $50,000 for lost wages, medical expenses and emotional trauma from the Chicago Zoological Society and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which operate the zoo in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

Dolphins are notoriously cheeky creatures. What if the decision to splash the water on people was that of the dolphins? Can this woman sue the dolphins?

I am imagining a pleading already: It was reasonably foreseeable by the average dolphin that splashing water on the surrounds might cause a human to slip. Although – if you are a water based mammal rather than a bipedal one – it seems unfair to expect you to know what will happen when you splash water on the ground. And do dolphins possess that degree of foresight?

The lawyer in me thinks that if the dolphins splashed near the enclosure, then it would have been prudent to have a non-slip surface. But to claim the keepers were reckless and willful in allowing the dolphins to splash people seems to be drawing a long bow to me. It seems like one of those cases where one woman’s accident might stop everyone’s fun. How far should you expect people to take care of their own safety (eg, notice that dolphins were splashing the area, and therefore step carefully)? There has to be some level of personal responsibility too.

That’s another interesting thing about tort law. What happens if I spill water in the kitchen and then slip on the floor, injuring myself in the same way as this woman has? I’m equally injured…but there’s no one I can sue apart from myself. There’s that element of chance about the accident – some accidents can rope in others as wrongdoers, others can’t. That’s where some kind of no-fault compensation scheme seems attractive.


  1. conrad
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    That’s great — It makes me wonder where litigation culture ends.

  2. Posted August 22, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Another chapter in The Big Book of Ridiculous Litigation

    99% of which is set in America.

  3. Posted August 23, 2009 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    It was also reasonably forseeable by the average human that dolphin displays tend to splash water on the surrounds. As a human being it seems entirely fair to expect them to forsee what happens when water is splashed on the ground and take greater care with their footing.

  4. Posted August 23, 2009 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Oh LE, you’ve been away in academia too long!

    How would you propose to enforce a judgment against a dolphin? Eat it?

  5. Posted August 23, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Well if you can ASBO a pig…

  6. Louise
    Posted August 23, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Is it just me, or do other people find their opinions of the sue-er dropping dramatically as soon as they read the words “emotional trauma”? Especially after just tripping and falling. Suing for “emotional trauma” after your father locks you in an underground cellar for 20 years is fair enough. Suing for “emotional trauma” after you tripped and fell, or after a drycleaner lost your pants is just… well… emotionally traumatic to me.

  7. Posted August 23, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    How would you propose to enforce a judgment against a dolphin? Eat it?
    Well it’d certainly deter me. 🙂

  8. Posted August 23, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    You try eating a dolphin, you’ll have Greenpeace on your *ss…

  9. Jonno
    Posted August 23, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    @ Louise

    I guess you’ll be pleased to learn that in Australia at least, you can only seek damages in mental harm if the act makes you suffer from a diagnosed psychiatric illness …

  10. Posted August 23, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    This case is now live at the AllRise Court. Cast your vote and opinion –

  11. Armagny
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    If an imbecile falls in the kitchen, and there’s no identifiable defendant, does any lawyer care?

    Seriously people, stop being so reactionary, I’m sure she’s suffering plenty of trauma. Imagine, waking up in a cold sweat, from a nightmare about DOLPHINS SPLASHING WATER IN YOUR PATH.. nowhere else to step, drawn by some inexorable power to place your foot in the dreaded, fatal, mess… PTSD for sure.

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