I was recently in Austin for a client mediation and had an experience that many travelers encounter: A disgusting hotel room that smelled of stale cigarettes and mold. Thankfully it wasn't the busy time of year and I found better lodging, but not everyone is so lucky.
Since poorly-maintained hotel rooms not only offend the senses, but can indicate a lack of maintenance that could lead to an injury or illness. Because of that, the incident set me to thinking about hotels' liability to their guests in such an event.
Common Injuries at Hotels
Like most places that directly deal with consumers, hotels have invested heavily in comprehensive safety measures. While those have no doubt staved off many injuries, guests still suffer damages in hotels all across the spectrum of expense and luxury--it isn't just questionable short-stay motels where the ambulances turn up on occasion.
We wouldn't suggest that these injuries are anything but accidents, but even if they weren't caused by deliberate action many of them were likely preventable. If damages occur due to a situation that could have been avoided with more forethought or caution, the hotel might be liable for damages on the grounds of negligence.
Here's a few of the most common causes of injuries on hotel premises:
- Swimming pool accidents - One of the most common areas where hotel injuries occur is swimming pools. Given that most hotels have some kind of pool, and most do not pay any staff to supervise the area while guests use it, there's opportunity for accidents to happen. Moving too fast on wet ground can cause someone to slip (there's a reason lifeguards yell at kids who run around the public pool). Guests sometimes are unable to see stairs under the water's surface if there isn't enough light or they are improperly marked. "Leave-in" pool cleaning equipment with hoses and machinery can tangle up with a swimmer. With no one to oversee or help guests any of those issues can be much worse than they ideally had to.
- Slips and falls - Hotel guests unfortunately face a number of ways to slip, trip, or otherwise fall on premises. Poorly-maintained flooring (uneven carpet, eroded tile or linoleum), a variety of slippery floors (near the ice machine, drips from guests returning from the pool, improperly-marked mopped floors), and uneven or broken staircases mean guests' footing is sometimes not guaranteed. If they fall they might suffer anything from bruised pride to broken tailbones.
- Burns - Almost any unfamiliar shower has a brief period of experimentation while its user tries to get familiar with the controls. Most of us have been there at least once: It usually ends up fine, but you're virtually guaranteed to freeze or boil for at least a few seconds while you dial in the ideal temperature.
Of course, some hotels tweak the universal controls on the building's water heating system, which can cause unwitting guests to be scalded if they accidentally overshoot the right temperature at the tap. Boiling water doesn't need much time before it blisters the skin and causes significant pain.
- Bed bugs - It doesn't seem like it's asking too much for a hotel to thoroughly clean each room's bedding between guests, but budgetary and staffing concerns may mean that some less-profitable setups quietly employ the unpopular "Looks Clean/Is Clean" philosophy.
When hygiene is not one of an establishment's top-ranking priorities, it can have negative results on guest health. We'll avoid the grossest potential hazards (though I'm sure you can guess a few), but it's possible that unlaundered bedding could transmit cold and flu bugs, and there's also an increased risk of allergens remaining in the room if it's not thoroughly cleaned.
Finally, the least-hygienic motels may carry the risk of bed bugs--little parasites that reproduce quickly and feed on blood. Their bites, while unlikely to carry any kind of disease, are itchy, numerous, and infuriating. If unchecked, bed bugs can infest hotel mattresses, pillows, furniture, and even electrical fixtures. Guests then carry them home in their clothes and personal effects; it can require an investment of thousands of dollars to destroy their infestation in a home.
- Sexual Assaults - While not as cut-and-dried as the other common premises defects listed in this section, under certain circumstances a sexual assault at a hotel can give the victim strong grounds to sue the business.
The most common instances where a sexual assault could be a premises defect would be if a guest is assaulted by a staff member. Hotels, especially late at night, have very few employees and little supervision on the property. Further, the staff has the means to enter whichever room they please. In rare instances, this combination leads to assaults on guests.
Many times the hotel knew that an employee had a checkered history when they hired them; for some unscrupulous hotel operators, that just means the applicant will work for cheap.
Another possible scenario where liability could exist is found in a recent case out of Galveston. The Cliff's Notes version of the case is that a local predator compelled a child to rent a room, where he then assaulted the underage boy. The hotel made no inquiries as to why a 15-year-old boy would be renting a hotel room. The case is still in litigation.
How Can an Attorney Help Me Pursue an Injury Claim?
As with any business that delivers goods or services to the consuming public, hotels and motels are obligated to meet basic safety standards for the well-being of their paying guests. Should they fail to do so, and a patron is injured in their room or elsewhere on the property, the owners of the establishment could owe financial restitution to the injured party. Any representative of the facility--that is, any paid staff member, be it a desk clerk, maintenance worker, or manager--who causes injury to a guest, be it intentional or accidental, can put the hotel on the hook for liability.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the case, it can sometimes be difficult to establish that a hotel is legally responsible for injuries that occurred on the premises. However, when it concerns hotels injuring guests, premises liability law assists would-be claimants by imposing the highest standard of care on the hotel. Hotel guests are what is known as invitees in premises liability law. This means that the property owner has to actively seek out and remedy dangerous property conditions.
A personal injury attorney must be able to prove that the hotel was negligent in some manner. This generally requires proving the hotel breached a duty owed to a person who was injured on the property, and that this resulted in the injury.
Proving the duty isn't the hard part; as noted, most purveyors of goods or services are considered at least partly responsible for the safety of their patrons. They must either
- provide goods or services that are guaranteed not to harm these patrons, or
- warn the patrons of any conceivable hazards that could arise from using the product or service.
If the provider fails remedy dangerous conditions on their property, the provider has breached its duty to the user. Premises liability law sets the bar fairly high when it comes to hotels' obligations to their guests, and rightly so.
If a patron is injured on a hotel's premises, the breach of duty should not be difficult to establish--so long as it can be made clear that the patron did not discover an entirely-unforeseeable method of coming to harm, and did not ignore clearly-posted warnings from the hotel. Once that is established, a premises liability attorney will go about proving that the hotel's negligence was the direct or proximate cause of the guest's injury. A poorly-maintained, slippery pool area may well have been to blame for that poor young man's leg, and while I do not know the specific circumstances of his injury, I doubt he deliberately aimed a shin at a metal chair leg while enjoying the hotel's facilities.
In order to pursue compensation, a plaintiff must have demonstrable damages that can be directly linked to the defendant's negligence. The wound on the kid's leg is a solid example, and pursuant to that physical injury, there's also the matter of the medical bills that would come from the sutures and clean-up. Depending on the gravity of the injury (I didn't see him around the hotel again before I left the next day so I can't be sure), he might have lost wages he could seek to recover as well. He was too young for long-term salaried work, but even an entry-level job running groceries or working a food counter might have been vital income, and he would be entitled to recuperate what he lost from having to stay off his feet and heal.
Others could be entitled to similar compensation, if they broke a bone by slipping and falling, or had to invest thousands of dollars in ridding their homes of stowaway bedbugs. A skilled premises liability attorney can help people who suffered such circumstances in recovering what they deserve from the facility that allowed them to be thusly injured. Ultimately, such litigation is about ensuring that hotels live up to their promises of a safe (if not always terribly comfortable) place to lay your head for a night or two.