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Practical Litigator: Holding Bates Motel and its sort liable for on-site crimes

By MARK McGRATH, Special to Lawyers Weekly

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Showering in a strange motel room hasn’t been the same since Norman Bates called on Janet Leigh one evening in 1960. Nothing makes a weary traveler think nice hot shower like the thought of a knife-wielding mollycoddle prowling the premises. Wearing a wig no less! Sweet dreams? Down the drain, like so much spiraling gore.

While no comprehensive studies have quantified the recent data, anecdotal evidence suggests that the frequency and magnitude of hotel crimes are exploding. “We’re absolutely seeing an increase in crime at hotels,” says Philip Farina, a security consultant in San Antonio.

Experts like Farina believe that hard economic times are responsible for the phenomenon. On one hand the stubborn recession is driving desperate criminals to more extreme means and methods. On the other, financially distressed hotels have slashed security budgets to reduce costs.

The result is a perfect storm where motive and opportunity converge, and the price is being paid by the unknowing public.

Whatever the root cause, this much is certain: the prospect of staying at a strange hotel hasn’t been this unappealing since Norman Bates was stalking the grounds of his eponymous motel wearing heels and mama’s favorite house frock. 

Hotel inadequate-security cases

As in any inadequate-security case, persons who own and operate hotels are generally not required to protect their patrons from the criminal acts of third parties.

If, however, the occurrence of crime was forseeable from the perspective of the hotel operator, the hotel would be required to undertake and implement reasonable precautions to protect its guests from criminal incidents that might occur on the property.

Of course, given the current safety crisis at American hotels, the exception quite swallows the rule.

North Carolina is especially cursed with high-risk hotels. The state is a grid-work of major highways and interstates. Because they permit easy access and easy escape routes, hotels located at or near highway interchanges are especially appealing to would-be criminals. Not surprisingly, these hotels tend to be hotbeds of criminal activity, including armed robberies, armed assaults, murders and sex crimes.

 Demonstrating foreseeability

Foreseeability is typically proven by identifying prior crimes that have occurred on or near the property at issue. We typically look at the five-year period preceding an incident under review to determine whether the frequency and gravity of previous crimes sufficiently demonstrate foreseeability.

In recent years some trial courts have only allowed evidence of crimes occurring on the hotel premises, and have rejected evidence of crimes occurring in the vicinity of the parcel in question. This is contrary to well-established case law.

In security cases in general, and in hotel cases in particular, crimes occurring in the vicinity of the property where the crime at issue occurred are admissible to prove that the occurrence of crime was foreseeable. For example, it has been held that where a crime occurred at a hotel located near a busy interstate exit, crimes at nearby interchanges could be considered in determining whether the occurrence of crime was foreseeable.

Or it may be that the types of crimes being committed in a given locale make the occurrence of crime. For example, when a group of notorious bandits targeted Charlotte-area hotels during a two-week crime spree, raising such havoc that they became known as the “Motel Bandits,” the occurrence of crime at the subject hotel was deemed foreseeable, even though the hotel had not previously experienced a high degree of criminal activity on its premises.

In practice, proving foreseeability can be a daunting undertaking. Most police departments in major North Carolina cities have data systems that allow for the retrieval of police calls for service at a given address. These systems also allow the police department to pull calls for service within a specific distance (e.g., half-mile radius) from the subject property.

Typically, a request for records will yield very raw data. The data will typically identify the type of crime (e.g., assault, murder, rape), the date of the incident and also provide a report number that corresponds to the narrative report prepared by the officers who responded to the call.

Editor’s note: McGrath is a partner with the firm of McGrath Podgorny in Research Triangle Park, where he focuses his practice on representing plaintiffs in catastrophic injury cases, including cases arising from nursing home neglect and abuse, electrical injuries, inadequate security, medical malpractice and third-party workplace injuries.

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