Legally Speaking: No liability for unforeseeable injury

(Safety and liability)

In a recent lawsuit, a meeting room at the Commerce Plaza Hotel in California was rented by several men as a “polling place for a presidential election.” The hotel did not inquire and so did not know anything more about the event. At the request of the renters, the hotel contracted with the security company it regularly used. Two of the company’s guards staffed the election. It is undisputed that the guards were independent contractors of the hotel and not employees.

Turns out the election was for the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Protesters assembled at the hotel on the morning of the vote. Some protestors, including plaintiffs, yelled at hotel visitors and were asked to leave the property. Plaintiffs claimed to have been assaulted and injured by the guards with elbows and pepper spray, and forcibly detained. Plaintiffs sued, alleging the hotel negligently failed to provide reasonable protection from the guards’ aggressive behavior.

The relevant rules of law are these. A facility that hires an independent contractor generally is not liable for injuries caused by the contractor. Nonetheless, a hotel has a duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition. This includes a duty to take reasonable steps to secure common areas against foreseeable criminal acts of third parties, including independent contractors. The key word is “foreseeable,” described by the court as follows: “The requisite degree of foreseeability rarely, if ever, can be proven in the absence of prior similar incidents of violent crime on the [hotel’s] premises.” If no like previous criminal event happened at a hotel, the facility likely cannot anticipate the occurrence of a criminal incident and so has no legal duty to take precautions to prevent it.

The hotel had received no previous complaints about the security officers using excessive force. Thus, the security guards’ alleged aggressive conduct could not have been reasonably foreseen by the hotel. Without that foreseeability, the hotel is not responsible to engage in any additional supervisory measures to protect against inappropriate action by the guards.

Further, the hotel had no notice that a large contingent of aggressive protesters would arrive on the premises and attempt to block entry to the facility. While the event organizers appear to have anticipated the possibility of some disruptions based on their request for security, the court found no evidence from which to impute that knowledge to the hotel. Additionally, the court excused the hotel from further inquiry as to the need for the guards, noting that “security guards could have been requested for various reasons.”

The plaintiffs’ negligence claim was thus dismissed; a great outcome for the hotel.

Duty to render aid

Plaintiffs also claimed the hotel failed to call an ambulance or otherwise assist when they were injured. A hotel is deemed by law to have a special relationship with its guests such that a duty to summon aid, including medical help, is created when a guest is hurt. The obligation exists even where the hotel was not the cause of the harm.

Thus, the Commerce Plaza Hotel had a duty to call for medical assistance for the plaintiffs. The hotel presented no evidence that, after learning of the plaintiffs’ injuries, it called an ambulance or other aid. The court thus refused to dismiss this claim, so it will proceed to trial or settlement.

Best practices: Use due diligence to verify the competency of your independent contractors, and put protocols in place for summoning help for injured guests.