Lax valet oversight can lead to host of issues

Are you attending sufficiently to your hotel’s valet operations? If not, the following case is a reason why you should be. The owner of a Porsche Carrera was a guest at the 7277 Scottsdale Hotel in Arizona. The inn had contracted with American Valet, an independent company, to handle the hotel’s valet needs. The Porsche owner parked his car with the valet and received a claim ticket.

Later that day, a John Morken approached the valet assistant on duty and requested the Porsche. He was not the owner, he did not have permission from the owner and he had no ticket. He also was described by the attendant as “high on drugs and behaving erratically.” When the attendant hesitated, Morken bellowed, “Give me the Porsche, man, let’s go.” Inexplicably, the attendant gave him the keys and the car. Morken sped off with the vehicle.  

While speeding down the highway, Morken crashed the Porsche into a Chevrolet Suburban. In that car with the driver were her husband and three children. One child was killed, another suffered a catastrophic brain injury and the others were seriously hurt. As a result, Morken is now serving a 16-year prison term for second-degree murder and related offenses.

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The family sued American Valet, the individual valet attendant who gave the car to Morken and the hotel, claiming negligent entrustment. This tort occurs when someone in control of a vehicle, including valets and car-rental companies, gives keys to a person who appears not competent to drive.

Valet service is not a separate enough entity to avoid liability for poor decision making.

American Valet denied liability and requested the court to dismiss the case early in the proceedings. The court disagreed and so the claim will proceed to trial or settlement.

The hotel may be lucky and dodge responsibility. The bungling valet assistant was not the hotel’s employee. Instead, American Valet was an independent contractor, meaning a company hired by the hotel to perform a specified task with only limited control by the hotel over how the work is done. As a general rule (exceptions exist), companies are not liable for the wrongful acts of their independent contractors. If hotel employees had provided the valet service, the inn could be fully liable for the injuries and losses.

The lessons from this case are important to heed. Ensure valet attendants are well trained to withstand bullies, to detect indicia of intoxication and to require a claim ticket before releasing any vehicle. Also, investigate well when hiring independent contractors.

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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