Can a Hotel Be Liable in a Personal Injury Claim?

If you're injured because of an unsafe condition on hotel property or the carelessness of a hotel employee, you might have a personal injury case.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Hotels can be held liable for injuries to guests in a number of situations, from a slip and fall accident to an assault. In this article, we'll walk you through the elements you'll typically need to establish in order to bring a successful personal injury claim against a hotel.

Proving That a Hotel Was Negligent

Most personal injury cases require the injured claimant to show that his or her harm was caused by someone's carelessness or negligence.

In order to hold a hotel legally responsible for injuries that occurred on the premises, you'll probably need to establish that the hotel was somehow negligent. That means showing that the hotel breached a duty owed to you, and that the breach caused your injury. Let's look at each of these elements separately.

Hotel Duties to Guests

A hotel has a general duty to exercise reasonable care in operating its business and protecting guests. A hotel guest, considered an "invitee" under premises liability law, is legally entitled to a high amount of protection.

A hotel must inspect the hotel grounds and maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. This duty includes quickly repairing dangerous conditions and taking affirmative steps to protect guests from known or reasonably discoverable conditions. For example, there is a duty to quickly clean up a spilled pitcher of water and a duty to post signs when a pipe located in a hallway is known to leak. In both situations, the hotel could be liable if a guest slipped and fell on the water from the pitcher or the water from the pipe.

Common hotel duties include a duty to maintain adequate lighting, a duty to keep steps dry and unobstructed, and a duty to repair problems with hotel property, furniture, and equipment. Other general hotel duties and responsibilities to guests include:

  • control insect infestation ("bed bugs")
  • maintain proper security (including guards and cameras) to avoid theft and assaults on guests
  • exercise reasonable care in hiring hotel staff
  • train hotel pool staff to prevent injuries to guests
  • maintain stairs and elevators, and
  • maintain locks on hotel rooms.

There is also a duty to reasonably construct hotel steps or warn guests of unusual staircase locations. Hotel guests have won lawsuits in which a hotel has been found liable for negligent design and construction where the staircase was located in a long hallway, there was no warning or caution sign, and the guests' inability to exit the hotel resulted in injuries.

Hotel's Breach of its Duties and Responsibilities

When a hotel does not regularly inspect the premises, fails to keep the premises reasonably safe, or doesn't take reasonable steps to warn of dangerous conditions, it has likely breached its legal duty to guests.

The Hotel's Negligence Must Be the Cause of the Guest's Injury

In all negligence cases, the defendant (the party being sued) must cause the plaintiff's (the party suing) injury. It must be reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that his or her actions could cause injury to the plaintiff. As a real-world example, a hotel is probably not negligent when a hotel guest slips on another guest's spilled soda in their individual hotel room. However, the hotel could be liable if the room has just been cleaned by the hotel staff and an obvious spill or other hazard was not remedied.

Injury or Harm to Guest

The final necessary element is harm. To succeed in a case against the hotel, the guest must experience an injury or some other loss. So, in a slip and fall case involving an obvious safety hazard, the guest must have been injured by the fall. It's not enough to show that there was a hazard, and that a fall occurred.

Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.

Damages In a Hotel Injury Case

In legalese, "damages" is the amount of money awarded to a successful plaintiff as compensation for injuries. Depending on the nature and extent of injuries suffered by the hotel guest, recoverable damages might include medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of companionship.

Hotel Liability for Employee Conduct

Under a legal theory known as "vicarious liability," a hotel may be liable for the harmful actions of employees. The hotel's liability depends on whether the employee's actions were performed "within the scope of employment." A hotel may be liable for an employee's actions even if the hotel did not sanction the conduct, was unaware of the incident, or did not have direct control or supervision over the employee at the time the incident occurred. But the hotel likely can't be held liable for an employee's intentional act, at least not under a vicarious liability theory.

Insurance Coverage and an Attorney's Help

A guest's injury suffered on hotel grounds is almost always going to be covered under the hotel's commercial general liability insurance coverage, and perhaps some form of "umbrella" coverage as well.

In some hotel injury cases, the injured guest might be able to settle an injury claim with the hotel's insurer without filing a personal injury lawsuit. But if your injuries are significant and you want to make sure your right to fair compensation is protected, it may be time to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.

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