Are You Safe in Your Hotel? Maybe Not….

One of the most interesting cases I’ve ever handled as a lawyer is the case of “Betty Darlington”. Because of the very personal nature of her case, I’ve changed a few facts for privacy, but it is still true to the spirit of the claim.

Betty was a widow and an early retiree, barely minted as an entry level senior citizen. While she retired somewhat young she wasn’t rich by anyone’s standards. She had a very simple lifestyle, lived inexpensively and she decided to pool her resources and live a cautious financial life until her social security benefits would begin paying in a few years.

One area where Betty didn’t mind dipping into her savings was on her annual religious retreat. Each year her church would hold a week long seminar somewhere in Florida which attracted parishioners from all parts of the South. Devoutly religious, Betty never missed a retreat.

With limited resources and the daunting expense of a seven day hotel stay, Betty scoured the internet looking for an inexpensive hotel in the Northeast Florida area that wasn’t too far from the religious activities. She found it in “Home Sweet Home”** – a family owned

two story motel with 60 rooms. The photos online showed that it was neat, clean and charming. Her entire 7 day stay was about the same as a two night stay in the Marriott up the road.

Betty was quite pleased when she arrived to check in. While not grand, this motel looked just like the photographs that were on the internet.  The building and grounds were well maintained and clean. Signs were posted about regular security patrols and safety video cameras were on the buildings. After check-in Betty went to her ground floor room which was quite small but serviceable.

The one thing that wasn’t working so well was the air conditioner in the room. That night, before she went to bed, Betty decided to open her window halfway up to let in the cooler fall air.

During the night, something unspeakably awful took place. Someone ripped the screen off, crawled into her room through the open window, sexually assaulted Betty, beat her up and took her pocketbook. The graphic details aren’t important, but she was battered about her face so bad that she was unrecognizable in the police crime victim photos.

After dialing 911, Betty was taken to the emergency room, fully examined and admitted for a few days of observation. She suffered a concussion, a broken jaw, facial fractures and a broken nose. Upon release Betty immediately came home. To Betty, her wounds would heal, but she was more upset she missed her entire Church retreat.

That is, until she came home to Palm Harbor and collapsed almost immediately. Back in the hospital, Betty’s concussion was worse than originally thought and she needed emergency surgery to relieve the build-up of fluid on her brain which entailed boring holes through her skull and dura.

As her lawyer, the first thing I did was to investigate “Home Sweet Home”. I cannot

remember the last time I was in a hotel or motel where the windows actually open more than two inches, if at all. This was an immediate tip off. Apparently it is not illegal to have windows that open in a motel, although it is not advisable for reasons identical to this incident: It is a liability nightmare for innkeepers due to break-ins, robberies and sexual batteries. The majority of motels limit the ability of a window to open. Home Sweet Home did not.
Next, I contacted the local police department and inquired how many times this police agency had been called out to Home Sweet Home for an incident. “In what period of time?” I was asked.  I chose the year prior to Betty’s incident. The clerk put me on hold and came back after a long period of time.

The records clerk of this municipality’s police department said, “We have been out to that motel 269 times!” That’s about five calls per week. The police were called out there for everything from suspicious incidents to suspicious persons, to solicitation for prostitution to strong-arm robbery and from burglary to attempted murder.

Bingo! While having the appearance of being a well-manicured and safe motel, it was anything but. While Betty did not know this, right behind the motel (and literally across the railroad tracks) sits a very high drug and crime ridden area. It is well disguised by railroad tracks, greenery, trees and fences. All of which were very penetrable by drug addicts and criminals.

Additionally, Home Sweet Home is the closest affordable hotel or motel in proximity to, of all places, the county jail! Because this motel had affordable weekly rates, recent parolees with various degrees of felony backgrounds eventually wend their way to this motel until they can get on their feet and head home.

So unbeknownst to her, Betty was staying at the crossroads of Crack Street and the Criminal Co-op.

It would have been more appropriate if Home Sweet Home’s marquis had a skull and crossbones on it and the Inn was painted to look like a Halloween Horror House.

Upon further investigation and discovery with my legal experts, we uncovered several things about this motel that made Betty and others particularly vulnerable. The signs posted about that stated “Regular Security Patrol” didn’t mean they hired security. It meant that they were situated in such a high crime area that the local police department would make additional efforts to patrol the parking lot when they had time. It was neither contracted for, paid for, nor regular. It was sporadic and it gave the appearance otherwise.

Oh yes. Those security cameras that Betty saw upon check in. The only video camera that worked was the one over the front desk to protect the employee on duty. None of the other cameras worked and in some cases, the cable was hanging unattached from the cameras. Knowing that crimes regularly took place on their property and in their parking lot, the proprietors of this motel chose to protect the safety of their employees, but ignore the safety of their guests.

When you consider that this horrible attack could have been avoided entirely by installing a simple lock on these windows to keep them from opening for very little money, coupled with the other breaches of security that enticed unwary visitors into this spider web of crime, these motel owners were very culpable indeed.

Needless to say, the insurance company for Home Sweet Home was quite anxious to settle this case and we were able to avoid a jury trial when a settlement offer was made that, in my estimation was more than what a jury would likely have awarded. We settled Betty’s case right then and there at mediation.

In case you’re wondering, no suspect was ever brought to justice or even questioned by the police for the assault and battery of Betty. And Betty is doing reasonably well and living her retirement life with a more financial comfort than when she started this journey.  As she tells her family, though, no amount of money can compensate for the sheer terror she experienced that fateful night.

**”Home Sweet Home” is not the name of the motel in question. It is a fictitious name.

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