Recent Hotel Incidents Serve as Cautionary Tales of Carbon Monoxide Health and Legal Risks
Three separate incidents at hotels in North Carolina, Maine, and California have hotel and motel owner/operators looking at how to ensure the safety of their guests, and respond to the potential legal ramifications should the unthinkable happen
March 21, 2014
Note, a copy of this article also appeared in HospitalityLawyer's membership publication, CONVERGE, on March 27, 2014. Read More >>
Recently, media exposure regarding the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in hotels, motels, and resorts has seemed to increase. The issue has garnered attention among such major media outlets as ABC News’ 20/20, USA Today, and CNN.
With good reason - a 2013 USA Today investigation showed that, “eight people have died and at least 170 others have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in the past three years in hotels.” A concerning statistic given that according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, approximately 170 people die each year from carbon monoxide produced by non-automotive consumer products overall.
Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is a colorless, odorless, gas with toxic consequences for people and animals. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a risk that hotel, motel, and resort operators must take seriously, most importantly to ensure the safety and well-being of guests. But also because of the potential legal exposure carbon monoxide poisoning poses, both to business entities and individual owners, should the unthinkable happen in their hotel.
The following are three recent cautionary tales involving carbon monoxide poisoning at hotels, and an illustration of the severe consequences for the hotel owners and operators in each case:
For the owner/operators in these and other carbon monoxide poisoning cases, the potential legal implications are severe. Not only could criminal charges be brought against the hotel proprietors, but any civil suits for negligence and/or wrongful death would present the potential for significant exposure, including the imposition of punitive damages. Thus, the question becomes: What is a hotel owner, operator or management company to do to prevent these catastrophic scenarios?
Unlike smoke detectors, which are federally regulated, only a handful of states and municipalities require hotels to install carbon monoxide detectors. While this number is currently small, in light of the scenarios discussed above, it is foreseeable that all states will move in the direction of requiring carbon monoxide detectors in hotel rooms. However, the question of whether a hotel owner/operator should get ahead of the curve and install carbon monoxide detectors comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. Admittedly, the costs associated with the hard wiring of monitors, including electrical work and retrofitting interior spaces, are not insignificant. However, owners and operators must weigh any potential cost against the hotel’s top priority, namely the safety and security of its guests. In addition, installing carbon monoxide detectors could serve as a marketing differentiator from a hotel or resort's in-market competitors.
Should a hotel have to contend with the unthinkable, a catastrophic incident, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, it is advisable to immediately conduct a detailed and thorough investigation. Preferably, counsel should be retained at the outset to shepherd the investigation, retain appropriate experts and serve as a liaison between the hotel and the investigating authorities. The benefit of counsel conducting the investigation is that everything learned during the course of the investigation falls under attorney client privilege in the likely event that a lawsuit is initiated.
Charles W. Spitz is a Principal and Co-Chair of Post & Schell's Hospitality Practice Group. He focuses his practice on representing members of the hospitality industry in a variety of legal disputes in both state and federal court. His clients include local and national food & hospitality companies, including hotel chains, management groups, and restaurants, as well as a variety of retail companies. Learn More >>
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