Hoteliers can find themselves liable for injuries caused by intoxicated guests in ways they might not have previously considered.
HOUSTON—When people talk about alcohol-related injury cases, they tend to think about those who drink at a bar and then cause car accidents. But, as attendees of the 2017 Hospitality Law Conference were reminded, liability issues are far-reaching.
In a session titled “Dram shop review 2017,” Elizabeth DeConti, shareholder at Gray Robinson, outlined the many unexpected ways in which hoteliers might find themselves liable for injuries caused by intoxicated guests. It’s important to have an understanding of what the local standards for liability are, she said, and those who are unfamiliar with them need to consult with legal counsel.
DeConti said there have been cases in which guests have become overly intoxicated and then are hurt staying on-property—tripping in bathrooms and hitting their heads or falling off balconies. Sometimes intoxicated guests get into assault and battery situations with other guests, she said.
“Just because they’re staying with you doesn’t mean the risks are mitigated,” DeConti said.
DeConti cited a recent case involving a couple who was staying at a hotel to celebrate their anniversary. Over the course of a four-hour meal at the hotel restaurant, the couple consumed 24 drinks between them; and as they headed back up to their room, the wife fell.
“The hotel staff finds a wheelchair, props her up, pushes her into their room, leaving her with her intoxicated husband,” DeConti said. “The next morning, the husband finds his wife dead on the floor from alcohol poisoning.”
Several things went wrong in this situation, DeConti said. The couple was “dramatically overserved,” she said. When the wife fell, the staff didn’t call for medical help and didn’t file an incident report. Lastly, DeConti said the wife was left in the care of her obviously intoxicated husband.
Courts typically don’t side with people who drink too much then injure themselves because of the part they play in their own injury, known as the first-party bar, DeConti said. But in this case, the husband’s attorney argued the hotel staff members were the last line of defense to save his wife. While the court decided against the plaintiff, the more important takeaway is what happened at the hotel leading up to lawsuit, DeConti said.
Whatever mistakes the servers made in serving the couple, the problem was exacerbated when the wife fell on the floor, she said.
There’s a lot of liability concern over “people who drive off the premises,” DeConti reiterated, “but the ones who stay are also a risk to you as well.”
Duty of care
Hotels have a duty of care to their guests, DeConti said. That means developing policies and procedures for when guests are intoxicated and could cause injury to themselves or others. Sometimes that means removing the guest from the property, she said, but doing so in a way that doesn’t breach the hotel’s duty of care to them or someone else.
“Do you call the authorities?” she asked. “If so, when? Do you call a ride for them? Is it safe transportation? These are all questions that might be answered in a policy you use to train employees. The problem is, you have a duty to that person, but also to other guests and possibly other people this person might injure.”
This depends on something called foreseeable consequences, DeConti said.
DeConti cited another case in which the hotel never actually served alcohol to the intoxicated guests, but still was found liable for their injuries because of how the hotel’s security staff handled the guests. A group of young adults checked in to a hotel and went out to some clubs, she said, and they came back intoxicated with the intention of sleeping it off in their room.
Although no other guests complained, the security staff learned about the situation and visited the group’s room, DeConti said. Upon seeing how intoxicated the guests were, security told them they needed to leave the hotel. The group protested, arguing they weren’t bothering anyone and just wanted to sleep, she said, but the security staff didn’t budge. The group asked to call for a cab because no one was sober enough to drive, but security wouldn’t let them stay in the lobby to wait. Instead of waiting outside on a cold night, the group piled into a car and drove off. They got into a car accident, in which one of them died and another was left in a persistent vegetative state.
“Think of all the terrible things that could have been avoided if (security) simply said, ‘Stay in the room and keep it down,’” she said.
The parents of the woman in the vegetative state sued the hotel, DeConti said. While the hotel did nothing wrong with its alcohol service, she said, the court ruled that the hotel had a duty of care to these intoxicated guests.
Hoteliers need to make sure that all staff members—including security, regardless of whether they were hired directly by the property or outsourced—are trained to properly handle intoxicated people, DeConti said.