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Innkeepers laws: What are they?

A local attorney’s television ad encourages his viewers to “know your rights.” That’s great advice for travelers, too -- and there are specific laws that govern your hotel stays. They are called “innkeepers laws” and they cover everything from overbooking to evictions. Amy Bradley-Hole gives us a rundown.
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Imagine you’re traveling in England in the early 1700s. You’ve been riding for hours, and you’re more than a little dirty and saddle sore. A pot of ale would be nice, as would a soft place to lay your head. Plus, it’s starting to get dark, and it’s dangerous to be out so late among the highwaymen. You think back on earlier journeys, when staying at a roadside inn was as dangerous as roughing it. Why, those pestilent innkeepers would wait until you’d fallen asleep, and then let the robbers into your room! And who knew what shifty business your fellow guests were up to. But now you see a candle in the window up ahead, and you know you can stop in relative safety, for new innkeepers laws have been passed to protect travelers and overnight guests.

Although this scenario takes place hundreds of years ago, many of its elements remain true today. Guests still have certain expectations when staying at a hotel , and they need to be protected from crooked hotel operators. Likewise, hotel operators need to be protected from crooked guests. That’s why states today have “innkeepers laws” on the books, mostly based on English common law . In fact, the earliest laws regarding guests’ rights date back to ancient Babylon, around 1700 B.C., when Hammurabi ordered death for innkeepers whose negligence caused inconvenience or injury to travelers. (Now I know what you’re thinking, but really folks, hotel managers are people too, and a dirty room does not warrant death, no matter how much it smells like cigarettes !)

Each state has its own statutes governing hotels, but they all cover pretty much the same areas, e.g., overbooking, guest security, in-room safes and safe-deposit boxes, evictions and discrimination. Many people feel the innkeepers laws favor the hotels, and in some cases, this is true. For example, laws allow hotels to evict guests for such things as disorderly conduct, breaking hotel rules, being an unaccompanied minor or not vacating the hotel at checkout time. Florida law even allows a hotel to evict a guest if that person “injures the reputation, dignity, or standing of the establishment.” (They don’t let just anybody stay at hotels in Florida!) Innkeepers laws also limit hotels’ liability in situations such as thefts from rooms, damage to cars in parking facilities and injuries to guests. They may also permit the seizure of personal property if a guest refuses to pay a bill. In fact, in a throwback to the old common law, statutes in Ontario still address how innkeepers may place a lien on horses left in their stables!

But these laws also protect you, the guest. Although laws vary from state to state, most require hotels to keep guests safe from harm from third parties. (It’s this provision that persuaded hotels put locks on guest room doors.) If a hotel overbooks and must walk a guest, some states require the property to find reasonable alternative accommodations; if the hotel fails to do so, the guest may be entitled to damages. If you are injured because of unsafe or poorly maintained facilities, or if a hotel employee commits a crime against you, the innkeepers laws are definitely in your favor. And the eviction laws I mentioned earlier really do protect the “good” guests -- after all, who wants to be stuck in a hotel with drunken teenagers who were supposed to have checked out yesterday?

There a few important things to remember about innkeepers laws:

They vary from state to state. Just because hoteliers in Louisiana must give you an hour’s notice to vacate doesn’t mean that Oregon hoteliers must do the same. So don’t go into a situation assuming you know your rights just because you know how it’s done where you live.

It’s easy to find out your rights. Do an Internet search for the state’s name and “innkeepers law,” and you will find links to most every state’s statutes. Also, read the fine print on hotel documents, especially your registration card (that’s the paperwork you sign at check-in). The provisions of many laws are covered in this document, and while the print may be tiny, the language is usually easy to understand. Also check out the framed notice on the back of your room’s door. You may need a magnifying glass to read it, but it contains legal information about things like maximum room rates and the hotel’s liability for theft. (These notices also show you your nearest emergency escape routes, so make a habit of looking at them.)

This is legal stuff. Many of these statutes are based on case law, which means that every time a judge or jury makes a decision in a hotel-related case, the body of innkeepers laws will be affected. Moreover, many states’ laws are vague. In South Carolina, for example, hotel liability limits are required to be posted “conspicuously.” One lawsuit in that state over stolen cash and jewelry dragged on and on because no one could clearly define what “conspicuously” meant.

Common sense is your best protection. No matter whose side the law is on, prudence is your best defense against harm. It’s stupid to drink too much and then try to slide down a wet corridor, and it’s really stupid to put $1.2 million worth of jewels in your in-room safe. A woman staying in an upscale hotel in Washington, D.C., did that -- and guess what? It got stolen! If you have something that valuable, put it in the hotel safe.

Don’t make lawyers do your thinking for you -- that just gets expensive. Instead, check into your hotel with your common sense and a smile -- then you can relax and enjoy the hospitality.

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. or on!