Liability for Hotels and Resorts

by David Cosgrove

We tend to let our guards down once we nestle in to a hotel or resort. We frequently try new adventures. Many take the opportunity presented by a night or week away to drink more than usual, or just go “nuts.” But sometimes things go wrong. Very wrong. Lots of folks die on vacation. And that’s a fact.

Hotel guests have been bringing their hosts to court for death and injury for at least a century¹. As such, a body of law has developed around the unique circumstances presented by companies hosting individuals. At least two legal opinions have been issued in the last several months in this area. They are worth taking a look at.

Last month an appellate court in New York sustained a trial court’s dismissal of one plaintiff’s claim, while sustaining the preservation of another. Linda Taylor was the plaintiff, both on her own behalf as well as on the behalf of the estate of her deceased husband. Linda and her husband were run over by a car while participating in a snowmobile tour. They found out about the tour while perusing the website for an exclusive resort they were about to visit. As it turned out, however, the snowmobile tour was provided by a company other than the hotel/resort.

Linda brought claims against The Point at Saranac Lake and The Garrett Hotel Group based upon theories of vicarious liability and negligent hiring. The trial court and the appellate court agreed that the negligent hiring case should be dismissed. The appellate court reasoned that–even if it could be established that the hotel “hired” the tour operator, there was no evidence to suggest “that the employer knew or should have known of the employee’s propensity for the conduct which caused the injury.”

On the other liability claim, however, the hotel asserted the basic tenet that “hoteliers are not absolute insurers of the safety of their guests and, generally, owe no duty of care to guests who are injured while under the supervision of an unaffiliated entity away from the hotel property.” Surprised? Don’t panic: the court of appeals stated—“not necessarily, Mr. Hotel.” Indeed, whether or not the tour guide company was “unaffiliated” under the circumstances was a question of fact for a jury. The case is Taylor v. The Point At Saranac Lake, Inc., 2016 WL 155415 (NY App. Jan. 2016).

Heading west, we have the case of Westin Operator, LLC v. Groh, 347 P. 3d 606 (Col. Sup. Ct. 2015). In that case, Jillian Groh, through her guardians and conservators, brought a variety of claims against Westin Operator, LLC, owner of the Westin at the Tabor Center in Denver. Jillian was a guest there with a bunch of her girlfriends. The hotel evicted them because they were too loud and rowdy in the wee hours of a freezing night. But the group asked the security guards if they could stay warm in the lobby while they waited for a taxi. The security guards refused. Jillian is now in a persistent vegetative state: the girls abandoned the taxi idea and left in a private vehicle. They crashed about 15 miles away from the hotel. One of the girls died.

In a case of first impression, the Colorado Supreme Court held that a hotel’s duty to exercise reasonable care while evicting a guest extended beyond the premises to include an eviction “into a reasonably foreseeable dangerous environment.” In other words, the innkeeper-guest special relationship does not necessarily terminate at the point of eviction. At least not anymore.

Taken together, these two cases expand hotel and resort liability beyond a boundary—the front door—previously presumed to be secure. Food for thought.

¹See, for example, Yall v. Gillham, 187 Mo. 393 (Mo. S.Ct. 1905).