OperationsReasonable Care: Two Legal Cases That Illustrate the Scope of the Hotel...

Reasonable Care: Two Legal Cases That Illustrate the Scope of the Hotel Operator’s Duty

Hotels are places of public accommodation where the duty to provide reasonable care and safe premises extends to group activities in function rooms. In an illustrative case, after downtown bars closed, an “after-party” moved to a conference room of a full-service hotel. Plaintiff in the resulting lawsuit was an invited guest to the continuing festivities.

Generally accepted management procedure calls for executing a contract with groups renting space. If a potentially boisterous crowd is anticipated, security requirements are heightened, as failure to control crowds can lead to liability. A typical group contract includes a stipulation that either the group provides security meeting the hotel’s requirements, or the hotel will provide security at the group’s expense.

For this spur-of-the-moment booking, the hotel could produce no contract, let alone any evidence of security arrangements. Because of prior experience with this kind of group, the hotel was forewarned of risk and should have insisted on provision for security. The large after-party crowd spilled over into areas outside the function room. Alcoholic beverages flowed freely without regard as to amount consumed or age of drinkers.

Overcrowding with uncontrolled consumption of alcohol amplifies the risk of confrontations. In this instance, the hotel provided no monitoring of the revelry, during which a fight broke out. Plaintiff suffered severe injury and sued the hotel for negligently inadequate oversight by staff and management. Prudent hotel management practice also includes promulgating and implementing protocols to address risk management, including ongoing training of staff in safety and security. Such training should address not just responsible dispensing of alcohol on the premises, but also oversight of activities transpiring in function rooms. The defendant hotel could produce no evidence of written protocols or training addressing security and safety. The hotel had a duty (a) to be aware of activities transpiring on its premises that may have been in violation of statutes, and (b) to exert necessary safety control by whatever means necessary. Total inattention to the after-party was determined to be a contributing factor in the injury to plaintiff. Given its total abdication of oversight of the event, the hotel was found negligent and in breach of its duty of reasonable care.

Duty of Care in Criminal Cases

Even cases involving serious criminal offenses such as rape and murder are adjudicated based on the hotelier’s duty of reasonable care in the circumstances. In criminal cases involving injury to patrons or staff, hotels are often found liable—but not always.

Following the murder of a hotel housekeeping employee, the woman’s estate launched a civil action citing as defendants the hotel’s franchisor, owner and operator, and general manager. The franchisor’s license agreement disavowed any control over day-to-day operations including hiring, training/supervising staff, or security measures, resulting in its dismissal as a defendant.

The facts: At 7:50 a.m., a man entered the lobby of the limited-service hotel. The man was familiar with the property—where he wanted to go and how to get there. He spoke briefly to the front desk clerk before clambering over the desk and heading for the back of the house, where he shot and killed a woman with whom he had a personal relationship. Less than 20 seconds later the assailant emerged, gun in hand. He was later arrested, tried, and sentenced. Among many other allegations of security failings (see sidebar), the attorneys for the plaintiff estate alleged defendants negligently failed to prevent trespassers, including the assailant, from entering the premises. But in fact, the perpetrator was not a trespasser. He had previously been employed by the hotel as an independent contractor and was free to walk in. For that matter, hotel lobbies are open to all, certainly during daytime business hours, with an implied invitation to the public.

The hotel employed security guards from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Absent high area crime rates, few limited-service properties employ round-the-clock guards. The hotel was one of dozens in a major resort area; of all police calls in the area over three years, only 2 percent took place on the street of the hotel.

The hotel had a protocol for optional locking of the front door during nighttime hours, but whether the door was locked on the date of the incident is irrelevant, as it would have been unlocked by 6:30 a.m. in any case. The hotel also had an alarm button at the front desk, and surveillance cameras were operable, focused on the front desk and entrance. They fulfilled their main purpose by recording the perpetrator’s arrival and departure.

Claims that security protocols fall short of “industry standards” are specious, because the huge diversity in hotel properties precludes “standards” for, say, number of security guards or their duty hours. There were many complexities in this case, but for defendants to be liable for failure to take affirmative action to protect employees from the unlawful assault of a third party, plaintiff had to prove that the hotel was afforded a reasonable and feasible opportunity and ability to prevent the attack.

In all allegations of negligence, foreseeability is a key consideration. There had been no area murders in the three years preceding this incident. Defendants’ attorneys claimed that this was a targeted domestic incident, an unforeseeable intervention by a third party, breaking the chain of probable causation—a known legal doctrine.

Defendants were found to have had reasonable security procedures in place. And for this sudden, violent assault that occurred without warning, under circumstances giving no reason to anticipate the event and no rational way to prevent it, defendants were found neither liable nor in breach of their duty of reasonable care.

The Allegations: Defendant Hotel’s Putative Security Failings

Following the murder of a hotel housekeeping employee by a man who entered the lobby of the limited-service hotel, the woman’s estate launched a civil action citing as defendants the hotel’s franchisor, owner and operator, and general manager. In the ensuing suit, attorneys for the plaintiff estate alleged defendants negligently failed to provide reasonably safe premises, citing 21 specific failings, including:

  • Failure to prevent trespassers, including the assailant, from entering the premises.
  • Failure to implement appropriate policies to prevent workplace violence.
  • Failure to appropriately deploy trained security guards.
  • Failure to develop and implement reasonable security protocols for the premises.
  • Failure to evaluate and address criminal activity in the area and on its premises.
  • Failure to warn invitees of foreseeable criminal activity on the premises.
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.