Editor’s Note: This is the seventh and final article in a series on an expert witness case in the hospitality industry. Start by reading the first article in the series.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Over the course of the past several weeks, I have shared a story based on a case that I was involved with as an expert witness. A young man — whom we called Paul for the sake of confidentiality — suffered a catastrophic injury when he was swimming in Miami Beach and collided with an underwater sandbar. As a result, he broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. I was hired by Paul’s attorneys to review the circumstances of the case and testify as to whether the hotel had breached its duty to Paul by not warning him about hazards in the water.
I explained how the hotel could be found responsible for safety on the beach adjacent to the hotel property; how the sandbar hazard was not obvious due to the unique and extreme nature of Miami’s sandbars; and how Paul could not have been expected to assume the risk that caused his injury or know that he was on public property when it occurred. I also discussed how the hotel attempted to blame the city of Miami and its beach concessions business partner, only to be undermined by safety precedents and the realities of guest expectations.
So how did the case end? I have to report the truth, which is that this case was settled confidentially. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the vast majority of litigation is settled out of court before a jury is ever empaneled.
I can say, however, from conversations with Paul’s attorneys that Paul and his family were satisfied with the settlement. The agreement reached will provide Paul with considerable compensation for the care he needs into the foreseeable future.
Although I wasn’t present for the negotiations, Paul’s attorneys made it a point to tell me that the investigative work we did together, the report that I prepared, and the testimony I gave in pretrial discovery were all greatly influential in terms of the leverage that Paul’s team had going into court, and the final outcome that they were able to deliver for him.
What Can Beachfront Hotels Learn from Paul’s Case?
So, case closed. But what can beachfront hotels learn from this story to better manage their own safety efforts? There are a number of points worth considering, but here are five of the major takeaways for all beach hotel managers.
- You are responsible for the safety not only of your own property, but also for properties you promote to your guests. If you operate on a beach that technically is not your property, you should not assume that you are immune from liability for things that happen there. This rule applies equally to any other amenities or destinations which you might offer your guests, including restaurants, nightclubs, shows and attractions, parks and campgrounds, etc. If you promote a place and encourage your guests to visit it, at a minimum, you should make them aware of hazards they would not normally anticipate or notice.
- Don’t assume that your guests know. It’s easy to assume that guests would, or should, know about a safety hazard that is well-known to locals. Don’t all guests know about the uniqueness of Miami’s sandbars? Don’t they know there are alligators in Florida lakes? Don’t they know that’s a bad neighborhood to go walking in? No, they don’t! Your guests are usually from out of town, which means what is obvious to you is not obvious to them. Take the time to think carefully about what visitors to your area might not know and educate them.
- Don’t assume that someone else will take care of safety for you. If guests are visiting someone else’s property, whether public or private, it’s easy to think that “someone else” will handle any relevant safety warnings. And they may try to do just that. But even if they do, that doesn’t mean you are completely off the hook. If you are actively promoting the use of another property, and you have unique opportunities to communicate safety information to your guests — opportunities that the property owner doesn’t have — then it would be wise, legally and ethically, for you act on them.
- Be consistent with your safety policies and strategies. If your property is part of a chain or a franchise with multiple locations, conduct frequent audits to make sure that whatever efforts you are making toward guest safety at one of your properties, you are making at all of them. Legal requirements should not dictate differences in safety standards, especially when the costs involved are nominal. Incongruities can leave the door open for the presumption of carelessness or negligence, so be sure that you are thorough and consistent with safety programs.
- If your hotel is the public face of the business, then your behind-the-scenes business partners will not save you from liability. It can be tempting to want to outsource a lot of routine hotel services, such as valet parking, bellhop services, housekeeping, security, and of course, beach concessions. There’s nothing wrong with that; these kinds of concessionaire arrangements can save hoteliers many labor dollars and a lot of operational headaches.
But if the change of hands to a third-party operation is not apparent to your customers, you should not assume that you are immune from liability for something that happens while your guests are in the care of these partner companies. If you have designed the environment such that your guests assume you are running the entire show, they will assume the same when they file their lawsuit as well. And you’ll likely find it very difficult to avoid exposure in those circumstances.
Paul’s tragic accident on Miami Beach left an indelible mark on his life, with consequences he’ll have to endure forever. But through the hard work of litigators and experts, Paul was able to recover some measure of restitution so that his remaining years might be a bit more peaceful, comfortable, and dignified. Through Paul’s story, other beachfront hotels can learn how to better manage their own safety efforts, so as to avoid this kind of tragedy from ever happening again.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.