Friday, May 8, 2015

Can a hotel be held liable for an assault simply due to location in a high-crime area? U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says no.

Beckwith v. Interstate Mgmt. Co., L.L.C., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25799 (2015). 

            The United States District Court for the District of Columbia recently entered summary judgment in favor of a hotel management company in an action filed by a hotel guest that was assaulted on the premises. The Court’s primary negligence analysis centered on the hotel management company’s duty, including the foreseeability of the assault and the relationship between a hotel and its guest.

            In Beckwith, Plaintiff Connor Beckwith (“Beckwith”) and his family were patrons of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel (“the hotel”) in Washington, D.C. The hotel was managed by Defendant Interstate Management Company, L.L.C. (“Interstate”), and Interstate’s duties included, but were not limited to, providing security at the hotel. It is important to note from the outset that, based on crime statistics proffered by Beckwith, the hotel is in an area where criminal activity is at a high, with five hundred and forty-two (542) violent crimes and four thousand, one hundred and seventy-one (4,171) property crimes reported from 2007 to 2009 within a half-mile radius of the hotel.

            On June 28, 2009, Beckwith traversed to the lower level of the hotel lobby to utilize the restroom. When he reached the lower level, he encountered Anthony Lopez (“Lopez”) who began a conversation with Beckwith and walked alongside him towards the restroom. As Beckwith proceeded towards the restroom, and once he was in the restroom, Lopez inappropriately touched him without his consent on two (2) separate occasions. Ultimately, Beckwith asked Lopez to leave, and reported the incident to his family, who immediately alerted the hotel’s front desk. The hotel’s security used its numerous security cameras to locate and ultimately arrest Lopez who was dining in the hotel restaurant. Deposition testimony established that the hotel’s security director was the only member of the security staff on duty at the day and time of the incident.

            Beckwith filed a one-count complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Interstate, alleging that it was negligent in its maintenance of security at the hotel, and in its response to the assault. Following discovery, Interstate filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Beckwith’s evidence was insufficient to establish the elements of a negligence claim.

            The Court applied D.C. tort law, which indicates that when a plaintiff alleges that a defendant negligently failed to prevent a harmful, criminal act by a third party, he or she must prove that the act was so foreseeable that it became the defendant’s duty to guard against it by complying with the applicable standard of care. Clement v. Peoples Drug Store, 634 A.2d 425, 427 (D.C. 1993). D.C. employs a “sliding scale” analysis in these types of cases, involving two (2) elements: (1) the criminal act’s foreseeability; and (2) the degree to which the defendant owes a “greater duty of protection” by nature of his relationship to the plaintiff. Bd. of Trs. v. DiSalvo, 974 A.2d 868, 872 (D.C. 2009) (citing Workman v. United Methodist Comm. on Relief of Gen. Bd. of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, 320 F.3d 259, 264 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). If the plaintiff fails to establish a protective or “special” relationship, he or she must make a “heightened showing” of the foreseeability of the criminal act to establish duty. Id. Alternatively, if a special relationship between the parties is proven, plaintiff’s burden to establish foreseeability is lightened, but not eliminated. Id.

            First, the Court found that a special relationship existed between the parties sufficient to lighten Beckwith’s burden to prove foreseeability, and that Interstate had a duty to use reasonable care to protect Beckwith from foreseeable, injurious criminal acts committed by a third party. See Kline v. 1500 Mass. Ave. Apt. Corp., 439 F.2d 477 (D.C. Cir. 1970) (holding that a “greater duty of protection” is owed when an innkeeper-guest relationship is proven due to a plaintiff’s necessary reliance on the hotel’s staff for security).

            Turning next to the foreseeability of Lopez’s actions, the Court examined the evidence, or lack thereof, proffered by Beckwith in support of his claims. Beckwith relied solely on the crime statistics mentioned above to establish that it was foreseeable that an intruder would enter the premises. The Court rejected Beckwith’s argument, stating that to hold as such would be tantamount to holding that any assault in any area with a high crime rate would automatically be foreseeable. The Court also pointed out that Beckwith did not present any evidence to demonstrate that Lopez was actually an intruder in the hotel, and that Lopez’s location upon arrest, in the hotel’s restaurant, suggested otherwise. Lastly, the Court pointed out that the hotel did not have a history of prior sexual assaults.

            As a secondary determination, the Court interestingly concluded that, even if the assault on Beckwith was foreseeable, he had failed to present sufficient evidence to establish the standard of care owed by Interstate. In support of his argument, Beckwith cited to expert testimony from Andre Street, who was presented as an expert on hotel security. The Court deemed Mr. Street’s testimony to be a vague generalization of applicable hotel security standards, and held that Beckwith’s lack of adequate expert testimony on the standard of care was “fatal” to his negligence claim under D.C. law. See Briggs v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 481 F.3d 839 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citation omitted) (stating that lack of evidence sufficient to establish a standard of care is “fatal to a negligence claim”). 

            Beckwith solidifies applicable D.C. premises liability law regarding the requisite evidence for a plaintiff to prove liability on the part of a landowner for the negligent failure to prevent injurious, criminal acts by a third party. One cannot simply rely on the location of the hotel to establish one’s case, and notice is essential, even when a special relationship, and correspondingly heightened duty, is owed. Further, Beckwith highlights the importance of expert testimony in a premises liability action, and demonstrates that mere conjecture on the part of an expert will not suffice to establish the standard of care owed in a premises liability action. The attorneys at RSRM have handled numerous premises liability actions, including the defense of hotels, nightclubs, and large stadiums. 

- Contributed by Catherine A.B. Simanski

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