In July 2008, the Seventh Circuit reviewed a summary judgment decision from the federal trial court for the Southern District of Indiana. While the decision was based on Indiana law, Wildman Harrold partner, David Weinstein, wants innkeepers everywhere to know the lessons this case provides.
In Morton v. Motel 6, No. 50 C 1633, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 15193 (7th Cir. July 17, 2008), the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Motel 6, stating that the plaintiff-guest ("Morton") failed to show not only that she was attacked at the motel, but that the motel was at fault. Morton alleged that she was sexually assaulted in her motel room and when she stumbled into the motel lobby, Motel 6 personnel failed to render her aid. However, Morton testified she had no memory of the events of that evening and Motel 6 security logs showed that Morton was the only one to use a keycard to enter her room. Morton attributed her injuries and damages to "security failings" at the motel and hypothesized that someone must have been hiding behind the shower curtain when she checked into her room.
The Seventh Circuit first addressed whether Morton provided any evidence of a sexual assault. Determining liability of an innkeeper for an attack by a third-party depends on all "the circumstances surrounding the assault." Weinstein states, "the entirety of the plaintiff's testimony was speculation and conjecture because she had no recollection of what occurred on the night in question. The Court said it was not permissible to have the jury speculate on what occurred."
Morton's second claim was that Motel 6 failed to render timely aid when she stumbled into the motel lobby. As the Court recognized, under Indiana law (and the law of many other states), an innkeeper "owes a duty to [its] guests to render aid after [it] knows or has reason to know that [the guest] is ill or injured, and to care for them until they can be cared for by others." Shortly after Morton initially refused an ambulance, a motel guest (an emergency medical technician) found Morton's blood pressure was extremely low and suggested that the motel call an ambulance. The front desk clerk contacted her supervisor to determine if an ambulance should be called in light of Morton's refusal. Upon learning that it would be appropriate, the motel called an ambulance. The Seventh Circuit noted that regardless of Morton's inability to present evidence about the timing of the aid rendered, she ultimately failed to present evidence that she suffered damages as a result of any failure to render timely aid.
The Court also reiterated its position on preservation of evidence. Morton filed a Motion for Sanctions for certain failures to preserve evidence by Motel 6. Morton claimed that Motel 6 destroyed certain back-up tapes and videotapes that should have been preserved. "Even though it affirmed denial of Morton's sanction motions, the Court made clear that companies must begin to preserve evidence immediately upon receipt of any notice that a lawsuit may be filed," Weinstein explains.
Ultimately, innkeepers must ensure they have proper security to defend against claims like Morton's. "One of the helpful factors in this case was the electronic record of door entry," Weinstein provides. "Other security measures to consider are notices in rooms advising guests not to admit strangers and to use the double-locks, and training staff to call 911 as soon as possible after a guest shows signs of distress or illness." Weinstein also cautions that any reason to anticipate a potential lawsuit may be enough to trigger evidence preservation obligations. "If in doubt, companies should err on the side of preservation."