Lost and Found: Legal Implications and Guest Expectations

Opening hotel room door

Sometimes, guests forget to take all of their belongings with them when they check out of a hotel. When a room attendant finds left-behind items, this can create a legal duty on the part of the hotel, as well as an expectation from the guest.

Is the item of value?

The answer to this simple question will determine whether the hotel is obligated to retain and safeguard the personal property. Items such as yesterday’s newspaper, a half-uneaten pizza, a disposable razor, empty toothpaste or toiletry containers, as well as food and beverages left behind in a guestroom refrigerator, may be considered abandoned property. Anything placed inside, on, or abutting a trash receptacle may also be considered “abandoned,” and creates no legal duty for the hotel to retain and safeguard. Feel free to dispose of these items.

Constructive bailment 

If the item has any perceived, real, or intrinsic value or utility, then the item must be treated as a “lost and found” item. Obviously, jewelry, money, electronics, and clothing will have worth and usefulness, while items such as a child’s blanket or teddy bear may have sentimental value.

According to the concept of constructive bailment, there is an automatic and involuntary legal duty that requires a hotel to retain and safeguard lost or misplaced items of value that are discovered by or turned in to its staff. Such items must be reported and handled according to the hotel’s lost and found procedures.

Emplace procedures

Every hotel should establish a policy and train its employees on how to handle “lost and found” items. To prevent claims of potential theft, require associates to immediately report any found item to the designated hotel authority. Maintain a log that specifies the item’s description, where and when it was found, and who found it.

Secure items of high dollar value in a safe deposit box or safe. All items found in different locations must be placed in separately labeled bags to prevent commingling and incorrect return. Each item must be retained until it is claimed by the appropriate owner or the state’s statute of limitations for lost and abandoned property has been reached. Statutes vary from state to state; it is essential that each hotel complies with their state’s laws.

Previous articleDeal Report: Nine Hotel Acquisitions and Financings
Next articleDeloitte: CFOs Anticipating a Slowdown, But Not a Recession
Dr. William D. Frye is a hospitality educator, researcher, consultant, and former hotel general manager. He is the co-author of AHLEI’s housekeeping textbook Managing Housekeeping Operations.