Family of woman killed in alligator attack sues housing company alleging negligence

Jan 25, 2024, 9:26 AM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The family of a Florida woman killed by an alligator last year as she walked her dog in her backyard is suing the housing complex’s owner, alleging its employees fed the gator and didn’t have it removed from the neighborhood retention pond.

The family of Gloria Serge filed suit Thursday against the Wynne Building Corp., which owns the Spanish Lakes senior housing complex in Fort Pierce where she had lived for almost 30 years. Serge, an 85-year-old widow, drowned Feb. 20 after a 10-foot (3-meter) alligator that residents had nicknamed “Henry” grabbed her by the ankle and dragged her into the retention pond where the reptile had lived for months.

The family’s attorneys, Gary Lesser and Joshua Ferraro, said at a press conference that Spanish Lakes employees routinely fed Henry chicken and other food, lessening its fear of humans, and never called the state hotline that summons trappers who will remove potentially dangerous alligators. They also allege that Spanish Lakes threatened to evict Serge if she walked her dog, Trooper, on the street, a violation of the complex’s rules. That left her no choice but to walk Trooper in her backyard next to the pond, they said.

The company also failed to warn residents about the alligators and installed docks and waterside benches, making Serge and other residents believe the reptiles posed no serious threat.

“This incident was 100% preventable,” Lesser said. “If Spanish Lakes had taken any measure of commonsense, reasonable action, Gloria would be here today.”

Bill Serge, the victim’s 62-year-old son, said he and his four siblings have been emotionally devastated by how their mother died.

“The sudden and violent nature of this attack, thinking about my mom in her final moments, resulted in a whole different level of all-consuming grief,” he said.

Wynne and Spanish Lakes officials did not immediately respond on Thursday to a call and email seeking comment. The lawsuit filed in state court is seeking unspecified damages.

While more than a million alligators live in Florida, fatal attacks are rare — even as human encroachment on their habitat increases. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission’s latest statistics, from 1948 through 2022 the state had 453 alligator attacks with 26 of them fatal — about one death every three years. Serge and another woman were killed last year.

“Never feed an alligator. It’s illegal and dangerous,” commission spokesperson Lauren Claerbout said. “When fed, alligators can lose their natural wariness and instead learn to associate people with the availability of food. This can lead to dangerous circumstances for yourself and other people.”

A security video obtained by the TV show “Inside Edition” shows Gloria Serge and Trooper standing about a yard (a meter) from the water’s edge, unaware that the alligator was swimming swiftly toward them before it lunged out of the water. Trooper jumped out of the way, but the gator grabbed Serge.

Carol Thomas, a neighbor, told WPEC-TV last year that she heard a commotion, looked outside and saw the alligator pulling Serge into the water.

“She came up for air, and she pushed her hair back you know, out of her eyes and her arm was out,” Thomas said. She said she told Serge to swim toward a nearby paddle boat, but “she said, ‘I can’t. The gator has me!’”

Thomas said she ran to get a pole to slap the alligator, but by the time she got back it had taken Serge underwater.

“There’s nothing you can do. Just kind of haunted by that, you know, I don’t know what else I could’ve done,” Thomas said.

Serge’s body was recovered, and the alligator was trapped and euthanized.

“No one should ever experience what my mom had to endure that day. No child should have to bury their mom under such horrible circumstances,” Bill Serge said.

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Family of woman killed in alligator attack sues housing company alleging negligence