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A room at the end: hotel liability for death.

I. Holiday Injury

Part of the increase in liability also comes from the increased variety of use of hotels and motels. Whether for vacations or long-terms stays, hotels are filling part of the urgency in where people stay. In the year 2018, for the very first time, the total number of available rooms in US hotels passed the 5 million mark, for the first time in American history. Spread out over 53,000 recognized properties, there are now 5,001,163 rooms for rent every night across America. This number doesn’t even include bed and breakfasts or other under-radar rentals.

Without meaning to pick on one particular company, there is an interesting case, once involving a Hilton, in Greensboro, North Carolina. With so many hotels across the country, what happened at that Hilton can indeed happen almost anywhere, at any high-rise hotel. A construction company in the late 1960s had the idea to capture a share of the burgeoning North Carolina hotel market. They hired an experience, well-known architectural firm from Virginia to design the property. Soon after construction was completed, a franchisee of Statler Hilton Inns, Inc. (which later became Hilton Inns Inc.) operated the hotel. More than a decade after the hotel had opened, tragedy struck. Interestingly, the facts were somewhat sketchy as to what caused the particular events. On the other hand, the outcome was certain. A certain Dr. Lamb died in a fall from the sixth floor of the hotel. An employee from the hotel, who had been working as a bartender, was implicated in the lawsuit by the widow’s premises liability lawyer. The bartender’s supervisor was also named in the suit, for failing to intervene adequately. A scuffle between the employee and Dr. Lamb, in the early morning hours, resulted in the employee pushing Dr. Lamb, either against, or deliberately through, the sixth-floor window. The window broke out, allowing the doctor to fall to his death.

A lawsuit by Dr. Lamb’s widow involved a premises liability lawyer in evaluating exactly who, besides the employee, was liable for the death. In addition to the hotel, were the engineers and contractors still subject to suit? After all, it had been over a decade since the hotel had been completed.

II. Building Blocks of Blame

Part of the important work of a premises liability lawyer is to study what was broken in a building, how did the flaw or hazard happen, and who knew about it. In this case, the premises liability lawyer also had to look at how North Carolina law apportions blame for a building design, and how long that blame lasts. Talking with an experienced premises liability lawyer will help an injured person – or in this case the widow of the deceased doctor – assess when any faulty design improvement was made. This is especially important in North Carolina. The General Assembly in North Carolina has decided that, after X years, contractors and engineers receive some protection from being sued. This does not mean that in most cases the hotel operator is going to be protected by this law: instead, as in this case, the Hilton owners attempted to also share liability with the contractors and engineers. The contractors and engineers argued that under North Carolina law, they were protected after six years of completing the hotel work.

Some parts of the puzzle were fairly easy for the Supreme Court to decide. For example, the bartender’s supervisor was dismissed from the suit. Ultimately, the court recognized that the General Assembly did indeed intend, based on public policy reasons, to decide to protect contractors and designers from liability after a certain period of time. Incidentally, because of these important time considerations, it is absolutely imperative for anyone who is injured in any premises or hotel (or any commercial property) to immediately get the advice of an experienced premises liability lawyer. This may have been the Assembly’s intention, and it may make economic sense. But the premises liability lawyer still had to ask…

III.  …The Big Question.

Ultimately, the premises liability lawyer in this case dealt with the major issue in this case: was this North Carolina law restricting lawsuits against the contractor to six years constitutional?

Unlike under federal constitutional guarantees, the North Carolina constitution actually acts to protect harm for a wider variety of personal injuries. The specific language under Article 1 sections 28 and 32, North Carolina Constitution: “…every person for an injury done him in his lands, good, person, a reputation shall have remedy by due course of law.”

While a premises liability lawyer can often successfully point out unfair treatment between classes of people, the Supreme Court was not buying in this case. Perhaps, because the classifications dealt with architects, engineers, and contractors, who are strictly licensed. The Supreme Court decided that these professional protections from suit were permissible classifications. Additionally, part of the hurdle in proving something unconstitutional, is the legislature gets at least some deference from the court system. This deference does not mean that any type of future classification, which acts to protect anyone from a premises liability lawsuit, is going to be upheld automatically. It is very important to talk only with an experienced premises liability lawyer to be certain that your full range of rights to sue all negligent parties are being adequately addressed by existing statutes.

Conclusions:   

People know where the most hotel rooms are. In order, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Owing to its location, North Carolina has a lot of hotel rooms: almost 149,000 rooms total. No one expects or certainly wants anything like what happened in the case we just looked at, to happen to anyone – let alone a loved one or family member. As we’ve also seen in this particular case, there can sometimes even be important constitutional rights, with what may seem to be a simple stop-over at a hotel.

If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in an accident related to poor hotel or motel construction, please contact us.  You will speak with a premises liability attorney/ lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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