Hotel Liability for Guests’ Belongings: Innkeepers Legal Liability and Rights of Hotel Guests

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 Hotel Liability: Who is Responsible for My Lost Belongings?

Checking into a hotel for a vacation should be a relaxing experience. Most individuals bring along personal items that are important to them. They assume when they check into a hotel room and put their luggage in the room, those belongings will be safe. However, personal property can be stolen or damaged while staying at a hotel. Hotels have limited liability for someone’s property unless they can show the hotel or hotel staff acted negligently.

The legal concept that governs these cases is called “innkeeper’s liability.” This concept determines whether a hotel is responsible for some, none, or all of an individual’s losses. This article will discuss the rights of hotel guests, especially with regard to their belongings and privacy.

What is the Innkeeper’s Rule?

The term innkeeper is an old fashioned term that used to refer to the person who ran an inn. It is used in the present to refer to hotels and motels. In past times, there was a rule that the innkeeper was liable for all losses and damage to a guest’s property unless the loss was caused by a third party, act of nature, or the guest themselves. 

In modern times, many jurisdictions have modified this rule so that the hotel’s liability is limited. However, the hotel must abide by certain regulations. The laws regarding hotel liability vary by state, but most have some things in common.

Hotels and motels can purchase what is known as innkeeper’s insurance. This is an insurance policy that pays for loss or damage to a guest’s property while on the hotel premises and in their possession. It is a policy especially for any business that provides lodging.

How Does an Individual Prove a Hotel Was Negligent?

An individual may bring a negligence claim against a hotel when their property is stolen from the hotel premises. In order to prove the hotel was negligent, the following elements must be proven:

  • The individual was a paying guest of the hotel at the time and was an “invitee;”
  • Because the guest was an invitee, the hotel owed them a duty of reasonable care;
  • The duty of reasonable care was breached due to the hotel’s negligence or failure to act, which resulted in the hotel guest’s claim; and
  • When breaching the duty of reasonable care, the hotel was the cause of the theft of the guest’s personal property.

What Duties Does a Hotel Owe to its Guests?

As noted above, a hotel owes a duty to meet the industry standards of reasonable care to its guests. The hotel must take care of certain items on the property and ensure guests have the duty of care met. Property owners always owe this duty to invitees on the property. A list of common duties hotels are required to complete to ensure guest safety include, but are not limited to:

  • Keep the hotel grounds in safe condition;
  • Be aware of any unsafe conditions, make swift repairs, and inform guests of any unsafe conditions until repairs are made;
  • Have security as needed;
  • Maintain enough staff members;
  • Properly train and oversee staff members;
  • Fix any heath and/or sanitation issues, including insect infestations such as bed bugs; and
  • Ensure all locks on guest room doors properly function.

What are Some Common Hotel Liability Issues?

There are some common hotel liability issues that arise. Since some of these scenarios are so common, many states now have laws limiting hotel liability in certain circumstances. For instance, many states have laws that protect hotels for events outside their control, such as an accidental fire or an act of God or natural disaster, such as a tornado or hurricane. In the case of an act of God, the hotel is not liable for an individual’s belongings. 

Another common issue is bailment. Bailment occurs when a guest must leave their luggage in the care of the hotel before checking in or after checking in for safekeeping. Should the luggage be damaged or stolen while in the care of the hotel, the hotel may be liable for the total amount of losses.

The most common worry of guests at hotels is having their luggage stolen. Laws regarding stolen property liability vary depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances. Many states differentiate between lost and stolen property. Many times, a claim for stolen property will succeed and a claim for lost property will not.

Some state laws may limit a hotel’s liability as long as they post warning signs renouncing their liability in their hotel or on hotel premises. For example, the sign may state a guest waives liability for stolen or damaged property if the guest does not use the hotel-provided safe for valuables. These types of notifications may not absolve the hotel from liability completely. 

So When is the Hotel Liable for a Guest’s Property?

In most cases, a successful lawsuit against a hotel requires proof of the operator’s negligence. This means that the operator failed to take proper care in performing the duties owed to the guests. Examples may include inadequate security for the building, defective locks or defective hotel safes, and/or failure to secure guest property left in their care. Should the operator not perform their duty, the hotel may be responsible for lost or stolen property.

Actions of others may also be negligent so long as the hotel had a duty to prevent them from occurring. This can include hotel employees stealing from guests and/or hotel staff being aware of possible criminal actions on the premises and not taking steps to prevent it.

A hotel can also be held liable under negligence per se. This means the hotel’s actions are automatically negligent because they violated a statute. Because of this, a successful lawsuit against a hotel may depend upon the laws in that specific state.

What Can I Do if Hotel Housekeeping Steals My Belongings?

If an individual’s personal belongings are stolen from their room by housekeeping, the hotel may be liable. Liability of the hotel does not require that the hotel have any knowledge that led to the theft. The guest would only have to prove the hotel was negligent.

The hotel will be liable for the hotel cleaning staff stealing property under the theory of vicarious liability. Under this theory, the hotel is responsible for the actions of its employees, so long as the employee committed the act within the scope of their employment. That means the act was committed during the course of their job duties.

What are Some Other Considerations Regarding Hotel Liability?

One issue to be aware of when staying at a hotel is a liability release form. Many hotels now require guests to sign one of these forms when they check in. These forms attempt to limit the hotel’s liability or even deny any liability for losses under the circumstances outlined in the form. So long as the releases do not violate any laws, they are usually binding. 

Another issue to be aware of when staying at a hotel is guest’s actions may impact hotel liability. For example, if a guest leaves their valuables in a hotel lobby where the public is free to come and go instead of checking them in with hotel staff for bailment security, the hotel will likely not be held liable for any losses. In most cases like this, a court will find that the guest was at fault, relieving the hotel of any liability.  

Do I Need an Attorney for a Possible Hotel Liability Claim?

Yes, hotel liability claims may be based on laws that vary from state to state. An experienced personal injury lawyer can review local state laws and determine the likelihood of the success of your case. 

Should you have a claim against a hotel, a lawyer can advise you on what actions to take, determine if you may be able to recover any damages and represent you during and court proceedings, if necessary. 

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