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Avoiding the Summertime Blues

Here are five great tips to avoid litigation and liability.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Ronald Roach
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U.S. and global tourism are expected to rise in 2013, much of which is anticipated to occur in the busy summer travel season that is now in full swing. This is a great sign for the hospitality industry, but the increased business activity and guest traffic results in greater risk of potential liability arising from commercial disputes, employment litigation, or premises liability claims. Below are five common sense tips to save you and your company from suffering the summertime blues caused by litigation and liability.

Tip 1: Involve Counsel

As things get busy, the task of carefully reviewing vendor contracts, preparing waiver forms for special events or guest activities, or drafting a release to avoid a potential lawsuit may not seem like a top priority. To save time and cost, there may also be a temptation to let the business people handle the contract preparation or review without involving in-house or outside legal counsel. Do not make that mistake. Attorneys are trained to find ambiguities that may lead to trouble down the road, help ensure that a contract’s provisions are balanced, that the “deal” is accurately memorialized, that any disputes arising from the contract will be governed by favorable law and resolved in a favorable forum, and that releases are drafted to afford your company maximum protection.

The few extra hours it takes to finalize the document and the lawyers’ bill will be marginal and may save you months (or years) of annoying, disruptive, and costly litigation that could cost you and your employees hundreds of hours of time spent assisting counsel with the case, locating documents, preparing for depositions or worst of all, trial. Of course, may save you the hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) it will cost to litigate a case. And, of course, if you lose (and plaintiffs win almost half of all cases that go to trial), your company may have to pay damages to the opposing party and, perhaps, even their attorneys’ fees.

Tip 2: Training and Routine Procedures

Many employment or premises liability-related problems can be avoided if you have routine policies in place and make sure that your staff is trained to follow those procedures. Establishment of set policies and procedures not only defines the expectations of your employees, but having employees follow one set of guidelines creates uniformity in how your employees perform their jobs. This in turn leads to higher productivity and a sense of predictability in terms of who is doing what and how. This process consistency helps eliminate opportunities for conflict, which further reduces risk.

In the employment context, establishment of anti-harassment procedures can help shield your company from liability in the event a discrimination claim is asserted. In the premises liability context, procedures for security and housekeeping practices will enable those employees who are about the premises most often to be on the lookout for, document, and begin to remedy any problems or concerns before your guests encounter them.

Policies and procedures can become stale, so do not forget to routinely review and update them as necessary.

Tip 3: Keep Records Showing You Follow Those Procedures

Having policies and procedures is one thing, but the fact that your employees are following them should be documented. In addition to policy and procedure manuals, daily or weekly checklists or logs can be particularly helpful in the event of a guest injury. These types of documents can help evidence timelines of when events occurred and will be helpful in demonstrating that your company was exercising reasonable care in its treatment of the premises and its guests. However, if your employees are not diligent and consistent in completing such forms, you can expect that any gaps or holes will be magnified and exploited by a plaintiff’s attorney.

Tip 4: Lock doors and windows

Imagine a scenario where an intruder enters a couple’s hotel room in the middle of the night through an unlocked window and viciously attacks them. Unfortunately, it can and has happened. Most guests assume that the doors and windows in their rooms are locked unless and never bother to check. Frighteningly, this is not the case. Locking windows and doors should be expressly listed on every housekeeping checklist and should be done (and double-checked) before each guest checks into their room. There is no excuse for failing to take this safety precaution. It is a simple task that is not time-consuming, but the consequences can be tragic and costly.

Tip 5: Customer Service Avoids Lawsuits

Regardless of how or who may be responsible for a guest injury, your staff must recognize that it is an unpleasant experience for the guest. What was supposed to be a fun, relaxing escape has now become a painful, embarrassing, and inconvenient ordeal. But your employees’ reaction to the incident may be the difference between a returning customer and an adverse litigant. A prompt, respectful, and thorough response to a customer complaint or injury can have a powerful and disarming effect on a would-be plaintiff.

In the end, no matter what you do, no matter how careful you may be in drafting your contracts, training your employees, or in making your premises safe, the odds are that you will find yourself in a dispute sooner or later. And with temperatures rising and crowds surging, it may be sooner than you expect. But will there be a lawsuit? Will you lose? How much will it cost you? If you employ these tips, you might not avoid legal battles or liability altogether, but you will increase your chances at preventing at least some. More importantly, when the legal battle begins, you (and your counsel) will be much better prepared to avoid liability.
Ronald Roach
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Ronald Roach is an attorney in the Phoenix office of DLA Piper LLP (US). Mr. Roach practices in the areas of complex commercial litigation and international arbitration. As part of his hospitality litigation practice, Mr. Roach has represented a variety of hospitality and leisure industry participants, including resorts, timeshare and vacation club developers, sales and marketing companies and a golf club in connection with a range of domestic and international commercial ...
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