A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Hotel Vacancy. Just Don’t Drink the Water.

Cecil Hotel Crime Scene

By Jennifer Williams

The Cecil Hotel, which is located near Skid Row in Los Angeles, California, is described on its website as an “intimate 600-room boutique hotel” in the “beautiful vintage European-style.”

But the reviews create an entirely different image: dirty, bugs, shared bathrooms, soiled sheets, and (my personal favorite), there’s a “tranny in the lobby.”

If that’s not discouragement enough, a look into the hotel’s history paints an even bleaker picture.

In 1962, a 27-year-old guest of the hotel killed both herself and the pedestrian she landed on when she jumped from a window.  In 1964, a woman was found strangled in her room. Two serial killers, Richard Ramirez, aka the “Night Stalker,” and Jack Unterweger, are said to have been return guests there in the 1980s.

And on February 19, a maintenance worker, responding to complaints made by hotel guests about the water pressure, found the body of 21-year-old Elisa Lam in a water tank.

Ms. Lam was last seen at the hotel on January 31, so it’s possible that Ms. Lam was floating in the hotel’s water tank for over two weeks.  In any case, guests are reporting that they thought something was wrong during this period: the water would appear black as it came out of hotel faucets.  And, oh yes, it tasted “funny.”

The hotel is still open but is providing guests with bottled water and advising them that the tap water is to be used to flush the toilet only. Current guests are required to sign an agreement absolving the hotel from liability if they become ill. (You are staying at the hotel “at your own risk and peril,” the waiver says.). And guests who’d booked a room and want to cancel because of the water situation can’t get a refund.

Will the waiver hold up to legal scrutiny? Was the Cecil negligent? LASIS investigates.

The Court of Appeal of California found in 1992 that a liability waiver stating a guest used hotel services “at his own risk” would be effective if it was “clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the intent of the subscribing parties.”

However, a liability waiver is not always enforced. In 1955, the Supreme Court decided in Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp. that contractual provisions exempting a towboat owner from all liability for negligence to an oil barge owner were void, noting the need to protect those in need of goods and services from “being overreached by others who had substantial bargaining power.”

The Cecil’s guests may have carefully budgeted a trip to California, and may not have extra cushion in that budget to check in at another hotel without a refund. This could create such a disadvantage in the guests’ bargaining power that the agreement would be found unenforceable.

Beyond the waiver, an issue for guests to consider is negligence. In order to prove negligence, it must be shown that the Cecil had a duty, which was breached, and that the hotel was the cause of any subsequent harm to its guests.

In 1938, the Court of Appeal of California determined that an “innkeeper owes the duty of at all times maintaining his hotel premises in a reasonably safe condition, and of exercising reasonable care to protect them (guests)” from personal injury through his negligence.

Clearly, the Cecil had a duty. Guests staying at the hotel can argue that allowing them to use water for showering, drinking, and brushing their teeth while a dead body was decomposing in the water tank breached this duty.

The Court of Appeal of California determined in 1951 that a hotel was not liable when a chair in a hotel room broke when a guest sat in it. The court said the hotel could only be liable if it had actual or “constructive knowledge” that the chair was defective. And to find constructive knowledge, “it was necessary for plaintiff to prove that the defective condition in the chair had existed for such a period of time that a reasonable man exercising ordinary care would have discovered it.”

Did the Cecil have actual, or even constructive knowledge about the body afloat in its water tank?

Guests are now saying that they complained to the hotel about the off-tasting or discolored water. This would have to be looked into, if any suit were brought.

And because the cause of death isn’t known yet, it’s hard to say if the Cecil reasonably should’ve known about the body in the water tank. It may be that Ms. Lam was killed in her hotel room and moved to the water tank just hours before she was discovered. Or, even if the cause of death was drowning, she could’ve been drowned in a bathtub and moved to the tank much later.

So far, there haven’t been reports of physical harm as a result of using the water. In fact, the Los Angeles Public Health Department immediately tested the water supply and found no harmful or disease-causing bacteria in the water tanks or pipes.

Still, the hotel is being cautious, and other than toilet-flushing, the guests are not going near the hotel’s water. How are they showering? Are they in contact with towels or linens washed at the hotel?

We made several calls to Cecil’s management, but none were returned.

We couldn’t complete this article without asking whether someone could sue for the psychological harm of having drank, showered, bathed, and brushed his teeth for weeks, with water in which floated a fellow – dead – guest.

In 1992, the Supreme Court of California recognized that “negligent causing of emotional distress is not an independent tort, but the tort of negligence. The traditional elements of duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages apply.” Further, the court found that damages could be recovered in the absence of any physical injury or impact under the theory of negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) so long as there was a preexisting relationship among the parties.

The relationship between a hotel and guest may rise to the level of creating a preexisting relationship because when a guest checks in, duty and obligations are created with respect to both parties. But unless the Cecil knew or should have known about the problem in the water tank, there was no breach of that duty.

Rooms can be booked at the Cecil Hotel for around $50, which is either an astonishing deal or not worth the risk. We’ll leave it to you to decide.

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