David Johnson was in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon this spring when his daughter called from her room at the Lexington Hotel to say goodbye. She intended to commit suicide.
According to Johnson, he frantically called the hotel 11 times before someone picked up and heard his warnings — and when he arrived at the front desk, he found no action had been taken and was advised to wait his turn.
It got worse, as described by Johnson’s lawsuit against the hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Staffers who finally took Johnson to his daughter’s room had no key and tried to open the door with a hanger. Half an hour passed before they got in and found Johnson’s daughter unconscious, her legs turning blue and a plastic bag over her head.
Emergency responders were able to revive his daughter, but Johnson sued for “severe emotional distress.” Representatives for the hotel, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, did not respond to requests seeking comment.
The case raises the issue of what responsibilities hotels have beyond providing traditional services to guests.
“The hotel can’t just bury its head in the sand,” said Richard Roth, Johnson’s attorney. “They have an obligation to the public.”
Generally speaking, hotels can be liable for exposing guests to reasonably foreseeable safety risks — such as a break-in when security is lax or faulty construction. This month, a lawsuit was filed against another New York hotel after a 3-year-old guest ate medication left by a previous guest.
Tara Devine, partner at Chicago-based Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, noted that a hotel’s duty to a guest could kick in during an emergency, raising the question of whether staff was adequately trained.
“If there was a fire in the room, would it have taken them that long to respond?” she asked, referring to the 30 minutes Johnson claims it took to get into his daughter’s room.
Under common law, businesses can also be found liable for failing to act when notified of imminent danger that could result in serious injury or death. Johnson’s lawsuit seems to hinge on this. The complaint describes the hotel’s response as “outrageous” and going “beyond all possible bounds of decency.”
If the case goes to trial, a six-person jury would determine what damages, if any, are due Johnson. For it to survive a motion to dismiss, Johnson’s attorney would likely have to show the hotel had a duty to respond to his warnings, Devine said.
“There are certain things a hotel is expected to do to protect its guests,” said Stefan Savic, a partner at Shipkevich. “Duty toward guests doesn’t really matter here because the father is not a guest.”
He added, “Up to the point the father alerted them, I don’t think the hotel did anything wrong.”
But that changed when Johnson called the hotel, he said. Businesses typically have some responsibility to react to an emergency on their property, Savic said. An onsite superintendent of an apartment building, for example, would likely have similar obligations if notified about a tenant in peril, said Robert Fellows, managing partner at Fellows Hymowitz.
Once informed of danger on the premises, there’s an expectation that the hotel should respond, he said.
“At that point, it’d be irresponsible not to act,” said Fellows. “Although there’s no contract between the hotel and the father, there’s a duty to act.”