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While you are reading this article, there will be at least one hotel fire in the United States. Most hotel fires are minor: a burning trash can or smoldering paper in a trash basket. However, each fire has the potential to become a major fire if conditions are right, or if it is not properly and promptly extinguished. Recent statistics indicate that in the United States, there could be some 7500 hotel and motel fires, 85 deaths in hotel fires, and approximately 450 injuries requiring medical treatment during a year. According to the National Fire Protection Association, people away from home are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire because they are in unfamiliar surroundings, often alone, and tired by a hectic travel schedule.

 

A midafternoon fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel and Casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on December 31, 1986, resulted in 96 fatalities and over 140 injuries. An investigation conducted by the National Fire Protection Association revealed that the major factors contributing to loss of life in this fire involved the absence of basic fire safety precautions. These omissions included: a lack of automatic sprinklers to retard fire growth and spread, a lack of automatic fire detection systems, inadequate exits, and unprotected vertical openings in the building that contributed to the spread of smoke.

 

Hotel fires typically develop rapidly, burn very hot, and create considerable quantities of smoke. During the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, investigators estimated that the fire moved across the casino area of the hotel at 16 feet per second.

 

Temperatures in excess of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit (538° C) were reported in a San Francisco hotel fire; fire investigators of the MGM Grand fire estimated temperatures between 2000 (1093° C) and 2800 (1538° C) degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Although some victims may actually burn to death in a hotel fire, in most cases they suffocate. In such cases, death does not result from an absence of oxygen so much as from the poisonous nature of the smoke being inhaled. Various types of plastic, linoleum, and vinyl products give off poisonous fumes when ignited.

 

Liability

An innkeeper is not an insurer of the safety of guests or their property. If this were so, an innkeeper would be responsible for all injuries or losses, regardless of cause.

 

The standard that is applied at this time in the courts is that of a "reasonable innkeeper," who possesses the standard of skill and knowledge that could reason­ably be expected of one occupying that position at that particular location, and who so acts in a given situation. While an innkeeper is under no duty to maintain a "fireproof hotel" either under the common law or statute, he or she nonetheless has the duty to provide reasonably safe premises for the housing of guests. Typically, there is a general duty of care and, in addition, a specific duty to warn of fire.

 

Factors that the courts take into consideration when deciding if the standard was met include not only the location of the hotel or motel but the quality of the inn, as set forth in its ads and brochures; the room rates charged; the history of the inn; and the training and experience of the innkeeper. By considering all of these factors, a standard can be established to be used by a jury in deciding if there has been a breach of that standard.

 

If what an innkeeper did does not measure up to this standard, a liability may attach. Not meeting the standard would be negligence and could give rise to damages actually suffered plus, perhaps, damages for mental suffering and anguish. Generally, in order to hold an innkeeper liable to a guest for the innkeeper's failure to comply with fire safety regulations, the violation of the regulation must be the proximate cause of the guest's injuries.

 

Negligent conduct may be active or passive. Active negligent conduct is the commission of an act resulting in injury to another, the breach of a legal duty owed to such other, and the falling below the standard of the reasonably prudent person under the circumstances. Passive negligent conduct is the failure to act, in violation of the actor's legal duty under the circumstances, resulting in injury to another. Innkeepers owe their guests, or others similarly situated, the legal duty to provide reasonably safe premises. The interest of the law in seeking compensation is that of protecting a guest or other person against the infliction of unintentional harm.