Editor’s Note: This is the sixth of seven articles covering a story based on the author’s involvement as an expert witness in a Florida court case. Read the first article in the series.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
As an expert witness I participated in a case involving a mentally disabled minor who was sexually assaulted by a hotel employee during a conference in Orlando.
Ivan, a hotel security officer, forced Jack, a 17-year-old mentally disabled boy, into an unoccupied hotel bathroom and committed an act of sexual assault and battery on the minor. The boy’s parents sued the hotel.
After investigating the hotel’s surveillance resources, Jack’s attorneys concluded that there was no doubt hotel security would have had ample opportunity to notice Ivan walking with Jack across the hotel that night. But the hotel rebutted by saying that, even if hotel security did see Ivan, his behavior would not have stood out as unambiguously suspicious.
Interviewing the Hotel’s Security Team
To address this argument, Jack’s attorneys needed to understand the operational dynamics of the hotel’s security department in much greater detail. So on my advice, they interviewed the hotel’s security director, the shift supervisor, and several officers. Questions were related to staffing, responsibilities of officers, and the latitude afforded to security personnel for the purposes of their daily tasks.
One of the biggest points of inquiry related to where officers should be within the scope of their assigned duties. Hotels generally establish security posts or positions staffed by officers. Each post has a specific zone of responsibility so officers can respond to any incidents or requests for assistance. The aim of spreading out security resources is to maximize coverage and minimize response times to any emergency that might arise. It also prevents roaming officers from gathering intentionally or not in any one area of the hotel.
The security employees confirmed this was how the hotel structured its security staffing. They also provided Jack’s attorneys with a map of the hotel with security posts marked. The layout was fairly typical: One officer in the meeting area, one officer in the lobby, two roaming officers in the guest-room areas, and several more outside patrolling the perimeter.
Jack’s attorneys also subpoenaed the post assignments for the night of the assault and learned that Ivan had been assigned to the meeting area post. Combining this information with the hotel post map, it became clear that Ivan had left his post and gone to the hotel elevator lobby in order to intercept Jack. It was suspected that he might have seen Jack earlier in the night and decided to follow him. Once he confronted Jack at the elevators, he then walked Jack back into his post area where he committed the assault.
Questioning Security Personnel
Armed with this information but not revealing their hand, Jack’s attorneys asked the hotel security employees a few pivotal questions. Must security officers stay within their post areas? The answer was yes. Are there any circumstances under which security officers would be permitted to leave their posts without notifying the security control center via radio? The answer was no. If personnel in the security control center were to observe a security officer outside his post area on security cameras, would this likely raise suspicion? The answer unanimously was yes.
The security employees’ testimony contradicted the hotel’s legal counsel’s argument that Ivan’s movements that night would not have raised any suspicions. Assuming security control center personnel were doing their jobs and watching the cameras, they would have noticed Ivan away from his post area. At that point, they would have radioed him for an explanation. That call would have alerted Ivan that he was being watched, which likely would have deterred him from following through on his assault on Jack. But security personnel said they did not see Ivan or attempt to call him.
One other important piece of evidence is worth discussing. Prior to the conference that Jack and his family were attending, the hotel management team sent out a property-wide email alerting all personnel that the group would include a large number of physically and mentally disabled minors. The purpose of the email was to encourage all departments to prepare for the special-needs children. The circumstances might warrant bolstering staffing and conducting detailed shift briefings.
Testimony from the hotel’s security team indicated that staffing levels were not changed during the event, which was little more than a footnote in security shift meetings and department discussions.
Why does this matter? Information of this nature is extremely important for security teams. If a fire were to break out during the conference, it would be helpful for security to know that the hotel was occupied by hundreds of guests with disabilities. Think about how many lives could be lost if that kind of information was not disseminated so security could respond and help guests accordingly.
Of course, it can’t be said for sure that a more earnest response to the email notification would have prevented the assault on Jack. But if there were more security on staff, Ivan might not have felt as comfortable taking the risk he did while on duty. And even if it didn’t change how brazen Ivan was prepared to be, more security officers might have at least meant a greater likelihood that someone would have seen Ivan acting suspiciously and investigated.
A greater effort to brief existing staff about the event participants might have also meant that, when the security control center staff observed Ivan walking toward the empty meetings area with a minor, they would have questioned the propriety of the circumstances enough to inquire.
At this point, the hotel had dug deep but come up short of a reasonable defense against the claims of negligence by Jack’s attorneys.
How did this case end? I’ll share the outcome in the final part, as well as some summary comments about what other hotels can learn from this story.
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.