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WSHB Case Update: The Colorado Supreme Court Prohibits Hotels from Evicting Guests Into Foreseeably Dangerous Environments

April 20, 2015

Why This Case is Important

For the first time, the Colorado Supreme Court has defined the duty a hotel owes to a guest during a lawful eviction. This case stands for the proposition that the long-recognized duty of an innkeeper to its guests to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances prohibits an innkeeper from evicting a guest into a “foreseeably dangerous environment.” Whether an environment is “foreseeably dangerous” is determined by (1) the guest’s physical state and (2) the conditions into which he or she is evicted—including the time, surroundings, and weather.

The Court limited its decision by stating that hotels are not required to provide safe transportation off premises during evictions, nor are they required to ensure that evicted guests actually take advantage of available safe transportation after eviction occurs. However, this case makes clear that an evicted guest does not necessarily cease to be a guest once she leaves the building.

Going forward, hotels should take special note of the circumstances surrounding the eviction of guests. If the evicted guest is somehow impaired by disability, intoxication or otherwise, or the time of day, hotel surroundings or weather present a reason for the hotel to believe the guest may encounter some risk of harm by reason of having to leave the hotel, caution dictates that the hotel take precautions to mitigate that evicted guest’s risk of harm.

Facts of the Case

After a late night out in downtown Denver, 22-year-old Plaintiff Jillian Groh brought a group of friends back to a room she had rented at the Westin Hotel. Around 2:45 A.M., security guards confronted the group about the noise level in their room and evicted the group shortly thereafter. At least one member of the group advised the security guards that everyone in the group was drunk and could not drive. One of Groh’s friends asked the security guard if the group could wait in the lobby for a taxicab, because it was below thirty degrees outside. The security guard told the group they could not wait inside and blocked the door to bar re-entry.

One of the security guards watched the group walk towards a nearby parking garage. Seven people entered Groh’s five-passenger automobile, with Groh’s intoxicated friend behind the wheel. Fifteen miles away, the group rear-ended a slow-moving vehicle on the interstate while traveling at an estimated seventy-five miles per hour. The accident killed one passenger of Groh’s vehicle and left Groh in a persistent vegetative state with traumatic brain injuries. Groh’s parents sued the Westin for negligence, seeking to hold the hotel liable for their daughter’s injuries because of the manner in which its security guards evicted her.

The Ruling

To prevail on her negligence claims, Groh needed to demonstrate, among other things, that the Westin owed her a duty and that the Westin breached that duty based on the manner in which the hotel evicted her.

In its opinion, the Court first outlined the long-recognized rule that the innkeeper-guest relationship is a “special” one, which confers upon an innkeeper a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances and an affirmative duty to aid or protect. The primary issue before the Court in this case was how this long-recognized rule applies in the context of hotels lawfully evicting guests, i.e., what duty the hotel owed Groh, its guest.

Based upon this special relationship, the Supreme Court held that the long-recognized duty of innkeepers to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances requires a hotel seeking to evict a guest to refrain from evicting a guest into a “foreseeably dangerous environment.” Whether a foreseeably dangerous environment exists at the time of eviction depends on (1) the guest’s physical state and (2) the conditions into which he or she is evicted—including the time, surroundings, and weather.

The Court said that Groh’s physical state—intoxicated—coupled with the 3:00 A.M. eviction into winter weather conditions was enough to create a “foreseeably dangerous environment.” In dismissing the Westin’s argument that its duty to Groh ended at the hotel property line, the Court said that the scope of an innkeeper’s duty to its guests is not defined geographically, but rather by an inquiry into whether a risk of harm to the guest arose in the course of the guest’s relations with the innkeeper. The Court said that the risk of harm to Groh arose when the Westin evicted the group and barred re-entry; therefore, the fact that the accident occurred fifteen miles away did not mean that the Westin’s duty had ceased.

Importantly, the Court limited its conclusion that innkeepers have an elevated duty to apply only in situations involving a hotel lawfully evicting guests. The Court expressly noted that no such duty applies to entertainment-based businesses such as taverns, restaurants, concert venues, sports stadiums or ski areas.

Although unrelated to its ruling on the negligence claim, the Court clarified that the Dram Shop Act of the Colorado Liquor Code did not apply to these circumstances, because it was undisputed that the Westin did not serve alcohol to Groh.

Lessons to be Learned from This Case

When lawfully evicting guests, hotels would be well-advised to incur the extra costs of ensuring guests are not evicted into potentially dangerous situations. The relatively low cost involved with mitigating risks to evicted guests is likely worthwhile, if the hotel can then avoid exposure to liability if a lawfully-evicted guest suffers injury.

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