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Last Update: 01/05/16

It’s one thing for a hotel owner or operator to be held liable for accidents or injuries that take place on the hotel grounds, say in their room, or at the pool, or on the golf course.

But is it a different story if a hotel guest gets hurt while swimming in the ocean? Yes, sometimes.

As we have discussed, a Florida hotel can be liable to its guests under Florida’s premises liability law for the damages resulting from an injury or accident occurring on their immediate premises. In these cases, one of the first arguments that the hotel will offer is that they have no, or little, liability because of the legal status of the injury victim. Trespassers, for example, are not given the same legal protections under premises liability law as “business invitees.”

A simple example of an invitee is a paying hotel guest; if the injury victim is an invitee then the “status” defense won’t protect the hotel from financial responsibility. That doesn’t mean the hotel’s insurance company and the hotel’s defense team won’t have other arguments (excuses) to not pay a claim (for example, the injury is from a pre-existing condition). One argument the hotel may raise, is that the negligence of the guest contributed to the injury (thereby reducing the hotel’s liability). Another, may be that the hotel had no “duty of care” in the particular situation, and that may include the location of where the accident happened.

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The Case of the Florida Hotel Guest Who Drowned in a Riptide

In the case of Poleyeff v. Seville Beach Hotel Corp., 782 So. 2d 422 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2001), there were two tragic deaths. On vacation from her home in New York one February, a lady named Eugenie Poleyeff was a guest of the Saxony Hotel here in Miami Beach. That eventful day, Ms. Poleyeff decided to wander down from her hotel to the beach next to another hotel, the Seville. This was a public beach, and she took advantage of the local beach rentals to grab a beach chair and a beach umbrella from a licensed concession stand.

Sadly, after setting up her umbrella and beach chair, Ms. Poleyeff decided to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean. Swimming there in the Florida sunshine, she was caught up in a riptide. A man named Zachary Breaux, a hotel guest at the Seville, tried to save her; both were drowned.

The personal representatives of the estates of Eugenie Poleyeff and Zachary Breaux filed wrongful death lawsuits against both hotels as well as the beach rental place. The argument: there was a duty to warn these folk of riptides and rip currents in the Florida ocean waters. Additionally, they argued that hotels should have lifeguards or other safety equipment on the beach for these kinds of emergencies.

Does a Florida Hotel Have a Duty to Warn of a Riptide?

Under Florida law, there is no legal duty to warn of dangers for the hotel when it has no control over the area; the courts have held the hotel has “no common law duty to warn, correct, or safeguard others from naturally occurring, even if hidden, dangers common to the waters in which they are found.” Adika v. Beekman Towers, Inc., 633 So.2d 1170 (Fla. 3d DCA 1994), review denied, 640 So.2d 1106 (Fla.1994).

The Seville Hotel and the Saxony Hotel were found not to be liable for the wrongful deaths of Eugenie Poleyeff and Zachary Breaux: “… an innkeeper `has no duty to warn its guests of naturally occurring surf conditions off of a public beach,” explained the court.

Examples of Florida Hotels Not Being Liable for Failing to Warn of Oceanfront Dangers

This seems like a harsh result but it is one that has solid support in other court opinions. These include situations where a Holiday Inn was found not liable for failing to warn a guest of a hidden sandbar at an adjoining beach (see Sperka v. Little Sabine Bay, Inc.,) and where a guest drowned while swimming in waters off an adjacent federally owned beach (see Princess Hotels Int’l, Inc. v. Superior Court).

The reasoning behind this, when it seems so sad that a tourist, perhaps naive to the dangers of ocean waters — cannot rely upon their hotel to explain about things like riptides and warn them of the risks of swimming in the Atlantic?  Well, Florida courts have drawn a line on where the hotel’s duty to warn begins and ends, and right now that line has been drawn at the ocean front.

Florida law takes the position that while these are tragic events, the distribution of risks and liability isn’t going to be extended to hotels for ocean drownings by their hotel guests when their deaths are caused by the “natural characteristic of the very waters in which it occurs.”

Hotel Liability for Hotel Guest Drowning

The lesson here? Hotels do have a duty of care toward their hotel guests. However, there are limits to that legal duty. In order to claim damages from the Florida hotel for injuries suffered by a hotel guest, there must be facts that establish a legal duty.

For instance, if the hotel had rented out the umbrella and chair for use on the beach, then is it taking on a duty of care towards its guests? Arguably yes: see, McKinney v. Adams, which changes things if the hotel is profiting in some way from that beach access; as for example renting equipment to be used when swimming in the ocean.

Each premises liability case must be considered and reviewed based upon its particular circumstances. Other issues here must be considered, for instance the duty of other defendants, too. Would there be liability on the part of the beach owner itself (even if it is a governmental entity like a county, state, or federal jurisdiction)?

The drowning death of a Florida hotel guest in a hotel swimming pool gets different legal treatment than the drowning of a hotel guest in the nearby ocean. However, if a guest is hurt in that ocean swim, is there no legal remedy? Did the hotel profit in some way by the hotel guest’s ocean access?

These are issues and questions for an experienced Florida premises liability lawyer to answer with potential claimants as they decide how to proceed in order for justice to be served.

What Should You Do Now?

A good piece of advice if you have been harmed at a business or commercial location, is to at least speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer before you file a claim to learn about some of the issues that can arise with these claims, including the type of evidence needed to prove a claim and the type and amount of damages you can recover. Most personal injury lawyers, like Alan Sackrin, will offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person) to answer your questions.



Do you have questions or comments? Then please feel free to send Alan an email or call him now at (954) 458-8655.
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