Hotels that throw out unruly guests may have to call a taxi (and pay for it too)
In a split-decision, the Colorado Supreme Court just announced that a hotel may be responsible for injuries that occur to a guest even after the hotel lawfully throws the guest out for unruly behavior. As explained below, the decision, particularly the degree of proof required by the majority, may have important implications for the hospitality and entertainment industries.
The basic facts are that Jillian Groh rented a room at the Westin Hotel in Denver before hitting the town for a night of partying with friends. Groh and friends returned to the hotel room in the early morning hours. The group was confronted by hotel security and ultimately told to leave the premises, even though Groh and her companions advised the guards that they were drunk and could not drive. On the way out, one of Groh’s friends asked a guard if the group could wait in the lobby for a taxi because it was freezing outside. The guard responded by blocking the door and saying, “No, get the f*** out of here.” Significantly, Groh and her friends discussed taking a taxi, Groh called her brother for advice and he told her to take a taxi and video footage showed the group walking past two taxis on the way to Groh’s car. Seven people then got into Groh’s car, with a drunken driver behind the wheel. Fifteen miles away on I-225, they rear-ended another vehicle, resulting in a crash that killed one man and left Groh in a persistent vegetative state with traumatic brain injuries. Groh’s family later sued the hotel for damages.
The case took an unusual path through the justice system. The trial court first ruled against Groh and found that a hotel cannot be responsible for what happens after it lawfully evicts a guest. The Colorado Court of Appeals initially affirmed the trial court’s decision by a 2-1 vote, then remarkably changed its mind on request for a rehearing (after one of the judges in the original case retired and was replaced) and ruled by a 2-1 vote that a hotel can be liable if it carries out an eviction in an unreasonable manner. The Supreme Court now affirmed that changed opinion of the Court of Appeals and said that a hotel must refrain from evicting an intoxicated guest into a foreseeably dangerous environment as determined at trial based on the facts and circumstances.
All of the Supreme Court justices agreed that the hotel could potentially be liable. It was a split decision because the justices disagreed whether the undisputed facts already established the hotel’s liability. The majority felt more evidence was needed before a decision could be made, including whether the taxis shown in the video footage were actually available for hire or whether other taxis were available at the time. The majority also indicated that hotels should pay for taxis as necessary as a cost of business.
Two dissenting justices felt that the hotel was not liable because the evidence showed that there were taxis in the area and that Groh contemplated taking one without being so intoxicated that she could not do so. The dissenting justices thought these facts already showed that the hotel had not evicted Groh into an unreasonably dangerous environment. They also thought that the majority was asking too much to require the hotel to prove that taxis were actually available on a given night. They pointed out that the high burden of proof required by the majority essentially requires hotels (and, by implication, the entertainment industry) to ensure that an evicted guest actually takes a taxi because otherwise there could be a dispute about whether a taxi was available.
If the dissenting justices are right, then the potential responsibility imposed by the decision to call (and pay for) a taxi every time they throw out an unruly guest could be a significant new burden on the hospitality and entertainment industries.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm LLC in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at (970) 468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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