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Westin v. Groh – Hotel Operator Liability in Crash Case

Florida is a vacation destination, and hotel owners frequently must cope with guests who are raucous and rowdy and occasionally argumentative and belligerent. hotelhallway

But if a hotel evicts patrons such as these under potentially dangerous circumstances – say, being too drunk to drive – can it be held liable for injuries that result?

The answer from the Colorado Supreme Court in Westin v. Groh: It’s possible. Although the ruling doesn’t have a direct effect on the Florida court system, state high courts will often look to the decisions of other courts for guidance when facing similar quandaries.

Here are the facts of the case:

A young woman’s sister used her employee discount to rent a hotel room. However, when the young woman/plaintiff later checked in, she did so with two friends and all three received their own room key. The women then left to go to downtown Denver, where they patronized several nightclubs.

When they returned around 2 a.m., they brought five to eight additional people back to the room. Although no one in the rooms nearby complained about noise, the rowdy crew caught the attention of a security guard. He called for backup and after arguing with the group, told everyone they had to leave. Members of the group complained they were drunk and could not safely drive. The whole reason they rented a room, they argued, was so they could consume alcohol without having to drive anywhere.

The guards insisted they leave. As the group made their way downstairs, one asked if they could wait in the lobby, as temperatures were below freezing. The guards reportedly swore at the group and ordered them to leave the property. Plaintiff called her brother who advised her to call a taxi, but she did not heed this advice. Several in the group left on their own.

Soon after, seven people in the group piled into a vehicle intended for a maximum of five passengers. Within 15 miles, the drunk driver crashed into a sport utility vehicle while traveling at speeds in excess of 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. As a result, one passenger died. Another, plaintiff (whose parents later brought this case on her behalf) suffered traumatic brain injuries that have left her in a persistent vegetative state. Several others suffered serious personal injury.

Plaintiff’s parents filed lawsuit on her behalf, alleging negligence, negligent training and negligent hiring. They asserted the hotel failed to exercise a minimum degree of care for her safety when it evicted her and her friends knowing they were drinking and physically drunk and without making any effort to determine if it was safe for her and her friends to leave the room, whether there was alternative shelter available and whether it was safe for them to drive home.

The hotel argued it did not owe plaintiff a duty of care, and the trial court agreed. Initially, the appeals court affirmed, finding the hotel didn’t owe a duty of care to plaintiff because the special relationship between innkeeper and guest was terminated upon eviction. Plaintiff’s petition for rehearing was granted, and the appellate court changed its position, finding a hotel has to evict a guest in a reasonable manner. This means the hotel can’t eject a guest into a foreseebly dangerous situation resulting from either the environment or the guest’s conditions. That means an innkeeper has to take into account things like the weather and the patron’s level of intoxication and availability of transportation.

The state supreme court affirmed. The court noted that by ejecting these guests from the hotel while recognizing their intoxication posed two definite risks: The risk of at least one in their party choosing to drive drunk or travel with a person who was drunk and the risk that an evicted guest might incur some harm as a result of the winter weather conditions.

Although the court recognized the hotel had a right to end its special relationship with its patrons, there was serious potential harm in this situation, and there were relatively low-cost alternatives that were reasonable in light of the situation. Those included calling for police assistance, allowing guests to wait in the lobby while they waited for a taxi or procuring a taxi for intoxicated guests. The court ruled any modest expense the hotel would incur in these cases would be justified.

The court was careful to say it wasn’t suggesting all hotels had a duty to call a cab for intoxicated patrons, but the facts of this case indicated that such action would have been reasonable in order to prevent foreseeable danger.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Westin v. Groh, April 13, 2015, Colorado Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Study: 6 in 10 Teen Driver Accidents Caused by Distraction, April 16, 2015, Palm Beach Drunk Driver Accident Lawyer

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