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Legal case

Al-Najar and others v The Cumberland Hotel (London) Limited 2020 EWCA 1716

A hotel owner was not in breach of their duty of care.

Executive summary

The Court of Appeal confirmed a hotel owner was not in breach of their duty of care for failing to prevent a theft and attack on their guests by a third party.

The facts

Six members of the Al-Najar family were staying at the Cumberland Hotel in April 2014. In the early hours of 6 April 2014 Philip Spence walked into the hotel lobby, went up in the lift to the fifth floor and then via the fire escape to the seventh floor where the Al-Najar family were sleeping. He gained access to one of the rooms the family was staying in. A key card controlled door had been left ajar by the family. He was disturbed whilst carrying out a robbery and attacked several of the family leaving one with catastrophic brain injuries. Mr Spence was subsequently convicted of attempted murder and imprisoned for life. 

As detailed in our report on the initial trial the claimants brought a compensation claim against the hotel arguing that the hotel had failed to keep them and their property reasonably safe. 

Both sides produced expert security evidence. It was confirmed in the evidence produced that thefts at the hotel occurred on average once per week. All doors were fitted with locks, latch guards and viewing holes. Patrols were carried out a minimum of once every 24 hours, the frequency of which increased post-accident. It also emerged in evidence that prior to the relevant incident, the hotel security manager had recommended a key card system to access the lifts. This had been rejected by management and only installed some time after the attack for unrelated reasons, although this did not appear to have reduced the number of thefts. 

High Court judgment – May 2019

At first instance Mr Justice Dingemans found that the hotel, having invited guests to stay there, had assumed responsibility for them and therefore owed a duty to take reasonable care of those guests to protect them against injury caused by the criminal acts of third parties. He noted it was reasonably foreseeable to the hotel that a third party may enter the hotel and injure a guest, such risk having been identified in training documentation produced by the hotel, albeit it was categorised as a low risk. 

In terms of breach of duty, he found the hotel had no overriding security plan or single formal risk assessment. A lobby officer had not been present at all times as required by the hotel’s policies and some CCTV cameras were inactive and those that were active were not continuously monitored. 

Yet having heard the evidence he found no breach of duty as in all the circumstances he found that the hotel took security seriously and had an adequate overall security system. This was evidenced by their security policies, training records, detailed systems for investigating incidents, monitoring of security issues, having clear roles for their security staff and the operation of daily patrols. 

The hotel had limited access to a single entrance after 11pm, employed a lobby officer and other staff, they had CCTV coverage, self-locking bedroom doors and had trained housekeeping and other staff to challenge unfamiliar persons on guest floors. 

Given the low risk and in line with other hotels there was no requirement to continuously monitor the CCTV, have cameras in lifts or on fire escapes, formally patrol more than once per day, install alarms on bedroom doors or implement key card access to lifts. The need to keep bedroom doors locked was obvious and therefore there was no duty to remind guests to do so. Similarly, there was no requirement to have lobby staff greet every guest entering the hotel, particularly as such staff had the whole lobby to administer. 

In such circumstances the hotel had done enough to show that they had taken reasonable care and as such the claimants’ claims failed.

Court of Appeal – 18 December 2020

The appeal was on limited grounds, namely that the judge had incorrectly assessed the standard of care of the hotel’s lobby officer. It was argued on appeal that he should have greeted each visitor who entered the hotel lobby, subject to the proviso of this being possible or alternatively where reasonably practicable. 

The Court of Appeal gave this argument short shrift, stating that the judge had been entitled to assess the actions of the lobby officer and make the findings on breach that he did. The judge’s decision that there was no breach of duty could not be faulted. 

Commentary

As we stated previously, this was a tragic case for the claimants, yet notwithstanding some gaps in process and procedure on the part of the hotel as well as post-incident changes such as the installation of key cards in the lifts, no breach of duty was established. 

From a legal perspective the case is a reminder that there is a duty of care on hotels to take reasonable care to protect guests at the hotel against injury caused by the criminal acts of third parties. 

Once a hotel has invited a guest to come and stay, the hotel assumes a duty to take reasonable care to protect their guests. 

Whilst the appeal focused on the actions of the lobby officer in not greeting Mr Spence or perhaps in more common parlance challenging Mr Spence, the High Court trial focused on some 29 other factors besides the actions of the lobby officer. 

The case is a salutary reminder of the importance of having good safety procedures which are documented and reviewed and that hotel employees are aware of them and that the employees have received appropriate training to put them in to action. 

If that is not done, a hotel could well find itself liable for the payment of substantial compensation to its guests.

Whilst even the most appropriate levels of security provision (as here) cannot always prevent the tragic events of this case, the case emphasises the importance of keeping security precautions under regular review to maximise the chances of avoiding the tragic events that in this case occurred. 

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