Asheville leads the state for the amount of tourism dollars it rakes in each year – more than $900 million just in Buncombe County in 2013. In 2015, Asheville recorded a 15 percent increase in lodging tax revenue, which was a record. BizJournals.com reports that as of last year, there were 17 new hotel projects or expansions currently in the works in Asheville.
Tourism has become a vital industry in North Carolina, from its coastline to its high country. But along with that money comes the responsibility of hotel and other property owners to ensure that guests are reasonably safe from foreseeable hazards. That means walkways are cleared of ice, snow, and other slippery substances, parking lots are well-lit, and security is reasonable in a way that doesn’t invite crime. It also means that guests can expect that they’ll be warned of any hazards about which the owner knows but hasn’t yet addressed.
This was the claim made in the recent case of Parker v. Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd., recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. According to court records, the hotel admitted negligence in a case in which a hotel guest was injured by a defective shower door that resulted in the glass shattering and causing cuts all over the plaintiff’s body. However, the question became a matter of damages. The plaintiff sought both compensatory and punitive damages, but the trial court refused to allow her to proceed with her punitive damages claim. The appeals court later ruled that was a mistake.
Punitive damages are those that exceed compensatory damages, which are for actual losses. The goal of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for egregious wrongs and to discourage the same type of action from that defendant or other defendants. It’s certainly not a given that plaintiffs will receive punitive damages, and in fact, they must first get a judge’s permission to even pursue them. The standards for the recovery of punitive damages in North Carolina are outlined in N.C.G.S. 1D-15. A plaintiff must first show evidence of the defendant’s fraud, malice, or willful or wanton conduct.
In the Parker case, the plaintiff and her sister were staying at adjoining rooms in a hotel. Shortly after check-in, the plaintiff took a shower, and as she exited, she attempted to exit the shower by opening the door, which exploded suddenly. She called for her sister’s help, and her sister called the front desk, which summoned the hotel’s engineer. He commented that it appeared as if the “stopper moved again.” He went on to explain the hotel had recently undergone renovations, and a number of the newly installed glass doors had overhead track stoppers that weren’t properly working. He explained the plaintiff’s room was on the “Do Not Sell” list, and he urged the sister to check and see if hers was as well. The sister looked and saw her shower door had the same defect.
Evidence uncovered by the plaintiff indicated several rooms had this same defect. She sued and sought both compensatory and punitive damages. But the trial court would not let her pursue punitive damages, finding the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law for the plaintiff to proceed with that portion of her claim.
The jurors ultimately awarded the personal injury plaintiff $20,000, minus a $12,000 set-off for an earlier payment the hotel had already made.
The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed on the issue of punitive damages. The court noted that whether the hotel personnel believed the problem had been repaired or whether the room was pulled from service for another reason were issues of fact that should have been decided by a jury, rather than matters of law for the judge to decide.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Parker v. Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd., Jan. 6, 2017, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Report: Hospital Patients Often End Up in Poorly Rated Nursing Homes, Jan. 9, 2017, Asheville Hotel Injury Lawyer Blog