Protection of guests: how far does a hotel’s duty extend?
09 July 2019
For the first time, the High Court has stated that hotels owe a duty to their guests to take reasonable care to protect them from injury caused by the criminal acts of third parties. But how far does that duty go?
In the early hours of Sunday 6 April 2014, Philip Spence walked into the Cumberland Hotel on Oxford Street. He walked across the hotel lobby, passing by the lobby security officer, entered the lifts and made his way to the 7th floor. He found that the door to room 7008 had been left on the latch. He entered the room, where members of the Al-Najar family were sleeping, and started putting items into a suitcase. One of the members of the Al-Najar family woke up. Mr Spence then proceeded to attack three members of the family with a hammer, causing very serious injuries and in one case, catastrophic brain damage. Mr Spence then took the lift down to the lobby and exited the hotel.
Mr Spence was later convicted of three counts of attempted murder.
The members of the Al-Najar family subsequently sued the Cumberland Hotel. Mr Justice Dingemans has now delivered judgment on the preliminary issue of whether or not the hotel was liable to the Al-Najars. In the hearing of that preliminary issue the Court heard extensive factual and expert evidence regarding the security measures in force at the Cumberland Hotel and in other 4 star London hotels. The parties agreed that when assessing what was reasonable, the relevant standard that the Cumberland Hotel should be assessed against was that of a reasonable 4 star London hotel.
The duty to protect guests
Mr Justice Dingemans held that because a hotel invites guests to come and stay, it thereby assumes a duty to take reasonable care to protect its guests against injury caused by the criminal acts of third parties. However, a hotel does not have an absolute duty to prevent an attack.
It was reasonably foreseeable to the hotel that a third party may gain entry to the hotel and might injure guests of the hotel. However, the evidence showed that the likelihood of such an attack occurring was extremely low, and that was relevant to the steps which ought reasonably to have been taken by the hotel to prevent such an attack.
What hotels are not required to do
To act reasonably the hotel did not (as the Claimants contended) have to:
- continuously monitor CCTV;
- have CCTV on the fire escape staircase and lifts;
- put a notice on bedroom doors, or hand out a leaflet, telling guests to shut their doors;
- have two lobby officers after 11pm; or
- provide key card access to the lifts (the evidence showed that such systems were liable to being overridden by tailgating and other guests pressing buttons allowing access to others. The evidence also showed that, at the time, only one four star hotel had key card lift access readers, although the Cumberland Hotel did later install them).
The Judge considered that he could not say it was more likely than not that the above steps would have prevented the attack.
Also, notwithstanding that the Judge considered that the following steps would more likely than not have prevented the attack, to act reasonably the hotel did not have to:
- put an alarm on bedroom doors which would sound if they were left open; or
- insist that the lobby officer greet every single guest or insist that every guest show their key card after 11pm.
Given the unpredictability of criminal behaviour, the attack could just have easily been carried out by another guest, or a person accompanying a guest into the hotel. Greeting every individual guest or insisting on key card access would not have prevented an attack by a fellow guest, and emphasises the importance of the guest bedroom door being shut.
Whilst this may be the first time that the Court has stated that hotels owe a duty to their guests to take reasonable care to protect them from injury caused by the criminal acts of third parties, it is clear that hotels have been conducting themselves on the basis that they owe such a duty for many years. Indeed, the Judge found that the Cumberland Hotel took security seriously.
The more difficult question to answer is how far a hotel must go to satisfy that duty. This judgment provides a detailed analysis of what a hotel does, and does not, need to do. However, the Claimants are said to be considering an appeal, so this may not be the last word on the matter.
In any event, threats to the safety of guests and the security practices and technology to counter those threats will continue to change over time, so hotels should regularly review their security practices and those of similar hotels with an equivalent star-rating, to ensure that they are acting reasonably.
You can read the full judgment in Al- Najar & Ors v The Cumberland Hotel (London) Ltd  EWHC 1593 (QB) here