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Wrongful Death Action against Motel Owner Comes to an End in High Court

Although Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a motel does not have a legal duty to check on a guest’s welfare at his wife’s request, the decision did leave open the question of whether the court may impose on hotel owners the duty to summon medical aid for a guest actually observed to be in distress, according to the Fulton County Daily Report. Accordingly, this area of premise liability appears to be continuing to evolve. For those of us who handle wrongful death cases, it seems clear that a motel has the responsibility, at the very least, to summon medical aid if they are aware of a person in distress.

The majority opinion explained its reasoning, referring to the failure of Georgia hotel night staffers to check on a man who died of heart failure after his wife’s repeated pleas from Texas as an issue of “humanity and morality,” not legality. Her husband was found the next morning by a maid, able to speak but unable to move from the floor. He died a short time later. While the Court acknowledged the tragedy of the event, to rule for the plaintiff, it said, “would be an epitomization of the adage ‘bad facts make bad law.”

The decision to grant the motel’s motion for summary judgment came despite testimony from the widow detailing her numerous failed attempts to alert motel employees to her husband’s plight. It also came despite a favorable autopsy from a cardiologist that revealed her husband might have survived had he received medical treatment that night.

This decision is particularly interesting to wrongful death attorneys who know it is a long-settled duty of innkeepers to maintain the safety of hotel premises for visitors. While I can understand the Court’s reasoning in light of case law precedents, I disagree with the court’s decision not to change that precedent. The FCDR reports that case law cited by the plaintiff’s counsel seemed to suggest that this duty applied solely where the operator of a premises knew the guest was in imminent danger because he had observed it himself. In addition, holding the motel liable would also give rise to public concerns about interference with guest privacy, something the legislative body is reluctant to do.

The attorney for the plaintiff explained the Court’s reluctance with the fact that cases over patrons found dead or injured in their hotel rooms does not often arise. Perhaps, if this was an issue that the courts saw more frequently, they would be more hard-pressed to rule on the more general question of requirements and duties to render aid, in lieu of only focusing on the holding for this case. As it is, this is but a small victory for hotel owners in regards to premises liability and risk. Fortunately, the bar is still set fairly high in terms of the level of care that must be exercised to maintain guest’s safety.

References:

Palmer, Alyson M. “Court: No liability for motel owner.” Daily Report [Atlanta] 6 July 2011: 1, 8-9. Print.