Protecting Your Hotel From Liability During COVID-19

May 15, 2020Article

While COVID-19 has had a negative effect on almost all sectors of our economy, few sectors have been hit as hard as the hospitality industry. Based on some estimates, the hospitality and leisure industry has lost nearly eight million jobs – a figure which is almost half of the sector’s employees.[1] According to some estimates, the hotel industry may have hit bottom in April, and new bookings appear to be increasing now in May.[2] 

In the days and months ahead, people will begin traveling for both business and pleasure – especially with Americans longing for some normalcy and a vacation from sheltering in place for months. As Americans begin to transition back to work and leisure during a period of time with an active pandemic but no approved vaccine, it will be incumbent upon hotels to take adequate steps to protect their employees and guests from the illness as best as possible. The virus is a known threat – known by both business owners and travelers alike – and, as such, hotels will need to exercise ordinary care in keeping the people within their confines safe.

Lawsuits such as the ones that may arise over COVID-19 are not without precedent. Just last year, a man sued a downtown Atlanta hotel after he claimed to have contracted Legionnaires’ disease while staying there.[3] After the alleged outbreak, the hotel had to shut down for several weeks in order to attempt to remedy the issues which potentially caused the spread of the disease at the property.[4]

Hotels are not insurers of the safety of their guests; however, hotels are subject to general negligence principles in maintaining their properties. Businesses which open to the public cannot merely ask guests to “use common sense” during the COVID-19 pandemic because owners and occupiers of land generally must exercise ordinary care to keep invitees at the property safe.

States like Georgia, which are allowing businesses to open back up, are doing so with strict guidance as to what is and is not allowed during this time. In Governor Brian Kemp’s May 12, 2020 order[5], the various guidance put forward includes:

  • No gatherings of more than 10 people.
  • Screen workers for fever and other signs of the virus.
  • Enhance sanitation where appropriate.
  • Prohibit handshakes.
  • Keep patrons six feet apart.
  • Post signs warning of the virus and asking that those with symptoms avoid the premises.

The aforementioned steps are a good start for hoteliers, but there are other actions that hotel management may want to consider in an effort to reduce possible liability. Consider the following steps:

  • Require your employees wear a mask whenever possible.
  • Require guests to wear masks when in the public areas of the hotel.
  • Document regular cleaning activities but especially any extraordinary cleaning and sanitizing procedures undertaken at the property.
  • Use tape or some other marking at the reception desk to illustrate the six feet of space that guests should maintain from each other.
  • Keep public areas such as the pool and the fitness center closed. Although many travelers will miss these amenities, it may be prudent to keep them closed until the pandemic has subsided.
  • Offer contact-free room service and limit contact points and capacity at sit-down dining facilities.
  • Promptly notify guests whose stays overlapped with any guest who you learn stayed at the property and has become infected with the disease. Likewise, promptly notify staff members of any known infections.
  • Follow any and all guidelines from state or local governments as those guidelines could be introduced as evidence of negligence or compliance with relevant regulations during litigation.
  • Stay up to date with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization concerning how to protect employees and guests during the pandemic.

In the meantime, it would be prudent to review your insurance policies. Many businesses – particularly those in the hospitality industry – are finding out that their losses related to COVID-19 may not be covered by insurance.[6] While it may be too late to be insured from this pandemic if you are not covered, a review of your relevant insurance policy will at least educate you and your business on your rights and responsibilities under the policy during this time.

If there is an incident at your hotel, make sure to document everything and save all records related to cleaning and sanitizing the property where applicable. Get statements from the relevant staff members who had contact with the guest or who performed any cleaning tasks within a two-week period prior to the guest’s check-in at the hotel. The records of cleaning – including videos, if available – may very well be the silver bullets that protect your property from liability due to an infection at the property. 

The reality is that with an airborne disease such as COVID-19, no building can be completely safe until a vaccine or herd immunity is achieved. In the meantime, make sure to take steps to protect your property and the persons within it. The steps you enact now to protect guests and staff could prove significant in the future.

Authors: S. Christopher Collier (Senior Partner, Atlanta), Bryan M. Grantham (Partner, Atlanta)

Hawkins Parnell & Young's national litigation team is helping businesses across the United States navigate unprecedented legal challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center for the latest insights and guidance.

[1] Franck, Thomas. “Hardest-hit industries: Nearly half the leisure and hospitality jobs were lost in April.”

[2] Sebastian, Dave. “Marriott’s Occupancy Starts Picking Up After Steep Decline Caused by Pandemic.”

[4] Id.

[6] Luca, Amella. “Insurers are denying coronavirus claims. Restaurants are fighting back.”