Editor’s Note: This is the seventh and final article in the series 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
To summarize, a hotel security officer we named Ivan forced Jack, a 17-year-old mentally disabled boy, into an unoccupied hotel bathroom and committed an act of sexual assault and battery. The boy’s parents sued the hotel for negligence.
As noted in the last part, the hotel attempted a defense against the lawsuit on the grounds that security control center employees would not have recognized Ivan’s behavior as suspicious. But Jack’s attorneys used careful discovery work and clever deposition strategy in their lawsuit to obtain testimony from hotel’s employees that Ivan’s movements would have looked unambiguously out of place on security cameras.
So how did the lawsuit end up? As with the vast majority of litigation today, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. Jack’s attorneys said the agreement was fair. The payment to Jack and his family would be enough to assist with any medication or therapy he might need to address the post-traumatic stress from the incident.
But what lessons can other hotels glean from this lawsuit and the way in which the hotel conducted its operations? Here are a few.
- If a crime is committed on the property, be forthcoming and proactive about notifying law enforcement. As discussed, the hotel general manager didn’t necessarily break any law when she declined to call the police on behalf of Jack’s family. But she certainly created an impression that the hotel wasn’t interested in being helpful. She also gave an excuse to Jack’s parents that was factually incorrect. This led to an inference that the management was either incompetent or dishonest. The lesson here is: know the law, tell the truth, and make every effort to help guests attain assistance from law enforcement if they need it.
- Let security experts handle security matters. I also discussed how the hotel’s general manager injected herself into the situation and took the lead in the investigation because she felt the severity of the accusations warranted her involvement. Her willingness to stand on the front line and do her job is commendable, but it’s clear that she was not qualified to do so. Hotels have security managers because they possess special knowledge, skills, and training to handle these kinds of sensitive matters. Let them do their job, and stand by to assist them if needed.
- Do your due diligence in hiring. The investigation into the circumstances of Ivan’s hiring revealed no evidence that the hotel knew or should have known of his propensity to commit a sex crime. In this respect the hotel management actually behaved competently. But it’s worth noting that, if it hadn’t, the outcome could have been even more damning for the hotel. If there had been some evidence that Ivan might be a threat to guests, and if the hotel had missed it in the hiring process, the hotel’s liability would have arguably been much greater, and the settlement much more expensive. So the importance of properly vetting employees cannot be overstated.
- If you have security cameras, monitor them in real-time. There was some uncertainty as to whether the officers monitoring the security cameras actually saw Ivan abduct Jack. What we know for sure is that cameras capturing Ivan’s suspicious behavior were in constant view on the security monitors. So if security personnel didn’t see him, they should have. The purpose of installing cameras is not just to collect evidence of crimes for investigation after the fact. It is also to monitor for crimes in real-time, and to take action to stop them. Guests expect safety in places with active surveillance, so having cameras and not scrutinizing them diligently is a recipe for legal liability.
- Know what suspicious behavior looks like. If you see something, say something. In this case, it’s at least possible that the security control center saw Ivan’s movements when he abducted Jack, and that it simply didn’t register that Ivan was somewhere he didn’t belong. Security personnel must have their heads thoroughly in the game at all times. They should zealously look for things that are odd, peculiar, suspicious, or out of place, and act on them immediately when they are identified.
- Share and act on important information. Here, the security department was advised before the group’s arrival that several hundred disabled guests would be staying at the hotel. But they declined to increase staffing and made no tangible effort to communicate the group particulars to their officers. Information like this is critically important for a variety of important safety and security reasons, and should be treated as such.
Concluding, it’s extremely unfortunate that Jack was the victim of Ivan’s sexual assault. No young person should ever have to endure such trauma. But it was even more unfortunate because the incident could have prevented if the hotel had honored and fulfilled its duty of care to Jack and all of its other guests.
Ivan is paying for what he did in jail. The hotel paid for its failures, and Jack and his family have hopefully received some small measure of comfort from the restitution of the lawsuit. The harm cannot be undone. The past cannot be changed. But it is my hope that the lessons learned from this situation will encourage other hotels to take necessary steps so that nothing like this ever happens to another guest 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.