Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CHECKING OUT FOR GOOD: Liability of Hotels for a murdered guest

By Siesta-friendly

Back in November 2009, we talked about the Liabilities of Hotels and Inns and the applicable provisions - Articles 1998-2004 - of the Civil Code. The Civil Code only covers liability for personal effects, not personal security and safety. But at the end of our piece, we mentioned the then recent Court of Appeals decision (affirming the Quezon City Regional Trial Court’s judgment) ordering the Makati Shangri-la hotel to pay actual and compensatory damages, inter alia, to the heirs of a guest who was murdered in the hotel.

Well, the Supreme Court just affirmed said Court of Appeals decision. It is worth noting that for a death which occurred in 1999, the final decision of the Supreme Court came out in 2012, a span of more than eleven (11) years.   Justice here has been long delayed.

The petitioners sought relief before the Supreme Court when the Court of Appeals ruled against them. 

It is interesting to note the main rationale in both courts’ decisions.  The Supreme Court succinctly states its decision in its introductory line[1] -

“The hotel owner is liable for civil damages to the surviving heirs of its hotel guest whom strangers murder inside his hotel room.”

So how could the hotel be liable despite the lack of any legal provision applying squarely to the facts of the case?  Negligence.  And the CA was able to determine that the proximate cause of the victim’s death was the hotel’s, and not the victim’s, negligence.

Let’s read the facts: The Makati Shangri-la’s closed circuit television (CCTV) tapes showed that the victim, Christian Fredrik Harper, “entered his room at 12:14 a.m. of November 6, 1999, and had been followed into the room at 12:17 a.m. by a woman; [and] that another person, a Caucasian male, had entered Harper’s room at 2:48 a.m.; that the woman had left the room at around 5:33 a.m.; and that the Caucasian male had come out at 5:46 a.m.”

Fast forward a few hours later:

“around 11:00 am … a Caucasian male of about 30–32 years in age, 5’4” in height, clad in maroon long sleeves, black denims and black shoes, entered [a jewelry store in] Makati City and expressed interest in purchasing a Cartier lady’s watch valued at P320,000.00 with the use of two Mastercard credit cards and an American Express credit card issued in the name of Harper. But the customer’s difficulty in answering the queries phoned in by a credit card representative sufficiently aroused the suspicion of [the] saleslady … who asked for the customer’s passport upon suggestion of the credit card representative to put the credit cards on hold. Probably sensing trouble for himself, the customer hurriedly left the store, and left the three credit cards and the passport behind.

In the meanwhile, Harper’s family in Norway must have called him at his hotel room to inform him about the attempt to use his American Express card. Not getting any response from the room, his family requested … the Duty Manager of the Shangri-La Hotel, to check on Harper’s room. Alarcon and a security personnel went to [the room] at 11:27 a.m., and were shocked to discover Harper’s lifeless body on the bed.”

On direct examination, the Makati Shangri-la’s then Chief Security Officer stated that “at the time he assumed his position as Chief Security Officer … he noticed that some of the floors of the hotel were being guarded by a few guards, for instance, 3 or 4 floors by one guard only on a roving manner” prompting him to make “a recommendation that the ideal-set up for an effective security should be one guard for every floor, considering that the hotel is L-shaped and the ends of the hallways cannot be seen. At the time he made the recommendation, the same was denied … as the hotel was not doing well and it was not fully booked so the existing security was adequate enough ...”  The “one guard, one floor” policy was put in place only after Harper’s murder. 

Turns out that “the male culprit who entered Christian Harper’s room was never checked by any of the guards when he came inside the hotel.” The guards also said that no one knew “said man entered the hotel and it was only through the monitor that they became aware of his entry. It was even evidenced by the CCTV that before he walked to the room of the late Christian Harper, said male suspect even looked at the monitoring camera. Such act of the man showing wariness, added to the fact that his entry to the hotel was unnoticed, at an unholy hour, should have aroused suspicion on the part of the roving guard in the said floor, had there been any.”

Further, “there were prior incidents that occurred in the hotel which should have forewarned the hotel management of the security lapses of the hotel. As testified to by Col. De Guzman, “there were ‘minor’ incidents” (loss of items) before the happening of the instant case.  The CA noted that the “minor” incidents may be of little significance to the hotel, yet relative to the instant case, it speaks volume [sic]. This should have served as a caveat that the hotel security has lapses.”

Based on the foregoing facts, the Court of Appeals held that the Makati Shangri-la “was negligent in providing adequate security due its guests” and did not exercise “reasonable care to protect its guests from harm and danger by providing sufficient security commensurate to it being one of the finest hotels in the country.”  

The CA stated that “the hotel business like the common carrier’s business is imbued with public interest. Catering to the public, hotelkeepers are bound to provide not only lodging for hotel guests but also security to their persons and belongings. The twin duty constitutes the essence of the business.”

This inadequate security was thus deemed the proximate cause of Harper’s murder as explained by the CA:  

“Proximate cause is defined as that cause, which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces, the injury, and without which the result would not have occurred. More comprehensively, proximate cause is that cause acting first and producing the injury, either immediately or by setting other events in motion, all constituting a natural and continuous chain of events, each having a close causal connection with its immediate predecessor, the final event in the chain immediately effecting the injury as natural and probable result of the cause which first acted, under such circumstances that the person responsible for the first event should, as an ordinarily prudent and intelligent person, have reasonable ground to expect at the moment of his act or default that an injury to some person might probably result therefrom.”

In affirming the CA’s findings and judgment, the Supreme Court further stated that:

“Applying by analogy Article 2000, Article 2001 and Article 2002 of the Civil Code (all of which concerned the hotelkeepers’ degree of care and responsibility as to the personal effects of their guests), we hold that there is much greater reason to apply the same if not greater degree of care and responsibility when the lives and personal safety of their guests are involved. Otherwise, the hotelkeepers would simply stand idly by as strangers have unrestricted access to all the hotel rooms on the pretense of being visitors of the guests, without being held liable should anything untoward· befall the unwary guests. That would be absurd, something that no good law would ever envision.” 

Cost-cutting measures are understandable – even for 5-star hotels - but those that place someone’s personal safety and security at risk are never worth taking. Guests have an expectation that they will find safe repose in such places, and not an eternal one.

[1]  Makati Shangri-La Hotel and Resort, Inc., vs  Harper, et al., G.R. No. 189998, August 29, 2012.


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