OperationsLodging's Legal Environment: Two Cases That Illustrate the Vital Importance of Reasonable...

Lodging’s Legal Environment: Two Cases That Illustrate the Vital Importance of Reasonable Care by Hotel Management

Hoteliers understand that they work in an environment fraught with legal implications, multiplied by myriad municipal, state, and federal statutes and regulations. Large hotel companies employ risk management professionals focused on safeguarding people and assets. They know that, while enterprises are not insurers of the safety of guests, hospitality operators have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to provide hazard‑free premises for guests and staff. Nevertheless, hotels large and small become defendants in lawsuits every day.

Although small‑property managers tend to rely on guidelines set forth by franchisors and third-party management firms, responsibility for day-to-day implementation of prudent safety procedures rests with onsite management. Given the relentless challenge of meeting profit goals and guest expectations, safety sometimes gets overlooked. If something bad results, everyone involved—management, franchisor, owner—may be sued for liability.

The preponderance of hotel litigation turns on whether management has met its duty of reasonable care in the circumstances. If a case goes to trial, the trier of fact—judge or jury—decides what is “reasonable.” How a hotel responds to incidents may also impact case outcomes. If the court finds that hotel management has failed to provide a reasonable standard of care or an inappropriate response, and the risk resulting in injury was known or foreseeable, defendants will be found negligent. Monetary damages and negative publicity follow. Both are punitive.

Regardless of property size, the best defense is always a proactive, preventive-law approach by hotel management. Listed below are two actual case illustrations involving assaults and accidents resulting in injury. Case records are mostly publicly accessible, but I will omit names and identifying specifics. In some cases, hotels are clearly at fault; in others, proof of good safety practices exonerates the hotel or mitigates monetary awards at settlement.

Illustration One

Guests attended a wedding reception at a major hotel. The event featured a hosted bar, i.e., an “open” bar. Late in the evening, as reception guests departed, without provocation an intoxicated guest struck and injured an innocent bystander. The injured person brought suit against the hotel. Legal discovery showed that the hotel required alcohol awareness training for staff through a policy that incorporated the AHLA CARE (now ServSafe Alcohol) certification program. The bartender had 30 years of experience and had received the training addressing the legal responsibilities of employees. Also present were a banquet captain and a manager, both of whom were certified.

However, the supervisors did not monitor the bartender or the consumption of alcohol by guests. The bartender proceeded to serve visibly intoxicated guests, which is not only irresponsible but, in nearly all states, unlawful. All witnesses deposed agreed that guests were served alcohol without limit, and that the perpetrator of the assault and others were visibly intoxicated; yet the bartender continued to serve them. The bartender admitted she ignored standing instructions to contact a supervisor for help with intoxicated guests.

The lawsuit contended that hotel management failed to discharge its oversight responsibility to ensure staff compliance with training. Even when intoxicated guests from the wedding party were throwing objects about, neither managers nor security personnel stepped in to control the situation. Unable to defend its failure to curtail the unlawful serving of alcoholic beverages or control unruly patrons, the hotel was found negligent. Plaintiff received a significant settlement.

Illustration Two

At a large metropolitan hotel flagged by a major franchisor, a woman was seriously injured when a room desk chair collapsed beneath her. The metal bracket connected to the chair’s swivel base and legs assembly was attached to the upholstered seat and back by four screws—not bolts. Photographs (by Plaintiff) showed that the screws pulled out of the seat, allowing it to separate from the swivel base and throw the Plaintiff violently to the floor. While commercial chairs may be ostensibly strong when purchased, desk chairs are exposed to constant use that may result in component failure. Regular inspections for loose, wobbly, or otherwise defective furniture are prudent. Plaintiff called down to report the incident. She received no helpful response, even when a third call reached the general manager. After a fourth call hours later, the hotel sent a third-party EMT to the Plaintiff’s room. At no time did Defendant management display empathy, concern, or interest in investigating just how Plaintiff had been injured in her guestroom. The only direct follow-up from Defendant was a telephone interview of Plaintiff eight months later by a corporate claims representative.

In most large hotels (this one had 1,200+ rooms), engineering departments do not wait around for work orders. Preventive maintenance is proactive. Housekeeping is the first line of detection for concerns before they become problems, but qualified maintenance personnel should be inspecting rooms on a rotating schedule to detect any deterioration in FF&E. Defendant hotel could provide no maintenance logs showing regular inspections of room furniture. Defendant thus failed any test of reasonable care in the circumstances and breached its duty to provide safe premises for its invitees, said breach being the proximate cause of injury to Plaintiff. The hotel’s negligence resulted in an award to Plaintiff.

General managers, as well as most department heads and supervisors, know their obligations under the law. Training, certification, or protocols are all useless without effective implementation and monitoring to minimize risks and the potential for liability.

Peter T. Tomaras, CHA, FMP
Peter T. Tomaras, CHA, FMP
Peter T. Tomaras is not an attorney. He managed hotels for 27 years and taught hospitality management (including hospitality law) for 10 years. He recently retired from 15 years of providing expert witness testimony to litigators in hospitality cases. He may be reached at innkeeper88@att.net.