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Hotel Liability for Guest Welfare: Court Weighs ‘Negligent Undertaking’

An appellate court in California recently reversed summary judgment in favor of a company that employed a maintenance worker accused by plaintiff of negligently failing to conduct an adequate check on her – a guest – at her husband’s urgent request. It turned out the wife had suffered a brain aneurism and was in dire need of medical attention. While the lower court found the hotel owed no legal duty to the couple (co-plaintiffs), the appellate court said the “negligent undertaking” theory of liability can be invoked where one comes to the aid of another but fails to do so with reasonable care.

In Florida, this is sometimes referred to as the “undertaker’s doctrine.” Having nothing to do with funeral homes, it involves establishing a defendant owed a “duty of care” (a key element in any negligence case) to the plaintiff. As noted in the Restatement (Second) of Torts Chapter 323, anytime a person undertakes to provide a service to others – whether gratuitously or by contract – the person who undertakes to provide that service (i.e., “the undertaker”) assumes a duty to act carefully and not to place others at unnecessary risk of harm. A good West Palm Beach injury attorney recognizes that this applies to governmental and non-governmental entities, and not only to those parties who have a contract with one another, but also third parties, as noted in the 2003 Florida Supreme Court ruling in Clay Electric Cooperative v. Johnson.

These cases can be pursued when a person undertakes or renders services to another that he/ she should recognize as necessary for the protection of the third person and his/her things is subject to liability if the third person suffers physical harm resulting from failure to exercise reasonable care if:

  • Failure to do so increases the risk of such harm;
  • Harm is suffered because of the third-person’s reliance on this undertaking.

It’s a complicated area of tort law, which is why it’s important if you have a similar case you think might meet this criteria that you seek the best personal injury lawyer in West Palm Beach you can find.

In the California case (and bear in mind, some provisions of law may differ in Florida), plaintiff arrived at the hotel, about an hour away from the home she shared with her husband, to take advantage of the timeshare privilege she had there. The front desk clerk checked her into a room. She spoke with her husband around 5:30 p.m. and her sister about a half hour later. At 7 p.m., her husband started calling her phone repeatedly, but she didn’t answer – even though the couple talked consistently on the phone throughout each day. After two hours with no response, the concerned husband called the front desk to find out her room number. He then made numerous calls to the room with no answer. At 10:30 p.m., he called the hotel and explained the situation to the front desk clerk and expressed his concern something might be very wrong. He asked if the hotel to send someone to her room to determine if she was there and if so, if she was alright.

The front desk clerk directed a maintenance worker to go to check the room, telling him to go in and see if she was there and if so, why she wasn’t answering her phone. It was the first time the worker had been asked to conduct a welfare check on a guest. He said he knocked on the door several times, announced his presence, opened the door, took one step in and called to ask if anyone was there. The lights were off and he said he only saw furniture shapes. He returned to the front desk and told the clerk no one was there.

Finally, at 5 a.m. and with no word from his wife, the husband had driven to the hotel himself and entered the room. He found her lying on the living room floor, unconscious. She had suffered an aneurism. Although she survived, her injuries were severe, with lasting memory, balance and other impairments. A doctor would later testify her injuries would never have been so severe if she’d received swifter treatment.

Plaintiffs sued, alleging negligence and loss of consortium. The trial court granted summary judgment to the maintenance worker’s direct employer (defendant). Plaintiffs appealed, and the California Court of Appeal Fourth Appellate District Division Three reversed. The court ruled that while ordinarily, one has no legal duty to come to the aid of another. However, if a person does come to another’s aid and does so with the failure to exercise reasonable care, the “helping” party can be responsible for damages under the negligent undertaking theory.

Now, the case will proceed to the trial phase.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

O’Malley v. Hospitality Staffing Solutions, Jan. 31, 2018, California Court of Appeal Fourth Appellate District Division Three

More Blog Entries:

Case of Restaurant Trip-and-Fall Over High Chair Leg Gets Second Shot at Trial, Dec. 28, 2017, West Palm Beach Personal Injury Attorney Blog

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