Hotel security requires vigilant attention

Two law enforcement vehicles with lights on at night
Courts may hold hotels with an "extensive history of criminal activity" more liable for crimes that take place on their property, Photo credit: welcomia / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Guests trust their safety and well-being to hotels. Inns must be up to the task. Falling short leads nowhere good.

A plaintiff’s 18-year-old son was stabbed to death by a party-goer in a room at a New York Howard Johnson hotel. The killer pled guilty to manslaughter in the first degree. The plaintiff sued the hotel for negligence. The facility denied liability and sought dismissal of the case. The court not only refused to dismiss the case but, in a rare move, ruled without a trial that the hotel was liable for the death.

The case is both unfortunate and a reminder of what not to do. The plaintiff presented documentary evidence establishing at the hotel an “extensive history of criminal activity,” including a gunpoint robbery, assault with a weapon, attempted burglary by a masked intruder, large rowdy parties in hotel rooms, numerous thefts, prostitution and drug sales. These incidents should sound alarms to any responsible hotel manager that stricter policies and beefed-up enforcement are indicated big time.

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On the night of the death, the hotel’s security personnel did not show up for work. At a pretrial proceeding, the hotel’s “principal” was asked whether anyone on duty attempted to call another security company to provide guards. The response: “No. We don’t call somebody else because we are working with [a particular security company], and my staff tried to call them but they didn’t respond.”

That’s it? Really?

The plaintiff also submitted an entry from the hotel’s front desk logbook about the incident in question. It read, “Cops were called. Someone got stabbed. The cops said we need to stop renting to [teenagers]. The cops stated they took weapons from the kids. Guns and knives. Just another night at the HoJo!”

Yikes! Plaintiffs’ lawyers’ dream about gaffes like this.

A hotel has a duty to adopt reasonable security measures to protect guests from foreseeable harm. Foreseeability can be established from past circumstances that are likely to be repeated. This is true even if the danger is created by a third party unrelated to the hotel. Failing to plan for foreseeable eventualities typically leads directly to liability.

The lessons are clear. The level of security at a facility must be sufficient to meet foreseeable risks. A back-up plan in case the first falls short is a must. And lessons on writing incident reports should be part of the training curriculum for employees responsible for making those entries.

Karen Morris is a lawyer, municipal judge and distinguished professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., where she teaches hospitality law. Contact her at [email protected]

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