Defense Law Articles
By Christian Stegmaier, Esq.
Collins and Lacy, P.C.
Columbia, South Carolina
It been written an innumerable amount of times: 9/11 changed the course of our history and forever affected just about every business and activity in this country. Travel, particularly air travel, is measurably different than what it was prior to that fateful day in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville. Think back to getting on a plane back in the 1980’s and 1990’s and compare that to today’s experience. Night and day difference.
The hospitality industry was also affected by 9/11 in many ways, yet the way hoteliers have operated— specifically as it pertains to guest privacy while occupying their rooms–has largely remained the same. However, October 1, 2017 and the events that transpired that night in Las Vegas arguably serves as an admonition to hotel operators that protocols concerning guest privacy in guest rooms to an extent that is conceivably on par with what the airlines faced post 9/11.
As we all know, on Sunday, October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. 58 people were killed and 546 injured as a result of this attack. The gunman’s vantage point from where he fired more than 1,100 rounds was the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. To this day, the gunman’s motive remains unknown. What is known, however, is that the gunman moved into his suite 3 days before the shooting, placed a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door, stockpiled an arsenal of at least 23 firearms and thousands of rounds, and organized the room for the eventual assault of the 20,000+ concert goers below. Since the shooting, many lawsuits have been filed against the hotelier, which are currently being litigated, asserting the operator breached a duty of reasonable care to those wounded by, among other things, failing to notice that the shooter was amassing guns in his room.
Though not ending in tragedy, more recently, a guest of the Hyatt Regency in Houston was arrested after police found a stash of guns in his room, which was at the top of the hotel, ahead of the downtown hotel’s massive New Year’s Eve celebration. The guest fought with security guards after they tried to escort him to his room because he'd had too much to drink. When law enforcement officers arrived to back up hotel personnel, the officer noticed ammunition in the man's hotel room. When investigators looked into his room further, they located an AR-15, a shotgun, a handgun and lots of ammunition. The guest advised that he had the firearms in his room because he did not want to run the risk of having them stolen from his car, which was parked in the hotel’s garage. Law enforcement disclosed to the Houston media they did not believe the guest’s story. The charges remain pending.
As a general rule, hoteliers owe their guests a right to their privacy. Hotels generally cannot consent to a warrantless search and seizure by the government of guest information or property. Absent housekeeping, maintenance, or matters pertaining to safety/emergency, hotel personnel are to leave their guests in peace and alone in private. The “Do Not Disturb” sign is universally understood by hotels and guests alike to mean “Keep Out!” The distance intentionally created by the guest with the outside world by hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign, however, may become a thing of the past, along with other things as it relates to traditional boundaries and notions of guest privacy.
Though not expressly acknowledged as such, as a likely response to the possibility of Las Vegas-type violence, Disney enacted a new policy at the beginning of the year wherein guests of hotels on the monorail line on its Disney World property, which are in close proximity to the parks, may no longer hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their doors. Guests instead get a “Room Occupied” sign to signal to hotel associates that they must knock and announce themselves prior to entering. This new prohibition on “Do Not Disturb” signs is part of a policy change that requires a hotel employee to enter every room at least once every 24 hours. According to Disney’s updated guest information pack, “The hotel and its staff reserve the right to enter your room for any purposes including, but not limited to, performing maintenance and repairs or checking on the safety and security of guests and property.” Disney has announced that this policy will eventually apply to all of its properties at both Disney World and Disneyland in California.
Whether the new Disney-created protocols become the standard remains to be seen. However, because of Disney’s reputation as a leader in the hospitality industry, it’s altogether reasonable to believe that other hotel operators will follow suit and institute similar policies, particularly for properties in well-known and popular locations teeming with people (e.g., Times Square, Hollywood, LA Live, Las Vegas, Bourbon Street, South Beach). Will there be an overwhelming rejection by guests and prospective guests manifested in the form of complaints of intrusiveness by the hotels and lower occupancy rates? In all likelihood, probably not. The days following 9/11 have taught us that the public generally acquiesces to new security protocols that are by and large not obtrusive with a minimum of rancor and dissent. The events of October 1, 2017, and the chaos and death and injury that ensued in Las Vegas likely underlines the need for these changes that much more in the traveling public’s minds.
What will be interesting to see is whether hotel operators, particularly larger operators in heavily traveled-to locations will institute additional measures in the months and years to come, such as screening luggage via millimeter wave units akin to what the TSA uses. The expenditure of resource and manpower to execute upon such protocols, as well as whether guests would tolerate such inspections, will likely be the determining factor as to whether such additional measures come to fruition. The real telltale though may be what the outcome of the litigation in Las Vegas is. If plaintiff’s lawyers successfully argue that larger operators such as Mandalay Bay should possess such security features, guests in the future may find that measures such as luggage screening may become the norm.
Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder of Collins & Lacy, PC in Columbia, South Carolina and chair of the firm’s Retail & Hospitality Practice Group. Additionally, he is adjunct professor of Hotel & Restaurant Law at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail & Sport Management. Christian represents the leaders in retail and hospitality in South Carolina. As well, he has a national practice in alcohol liability. Christian is a frequent author and presenter on retail & hospitality law matters, particularly relating to current trends in litigation and operator best practices. He invites your questions or other inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-255-0454.