Carbon monoxide poisoning and Legionnaires’: Why hotel guests have more legal options this time around than with COVID-19

Jun 29, 2022

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Determining where exactly someone contracted COVID-19 can be like a “Nancy Drew” mystery that often turns into finger-pointing. However, recent safety flare-ups and illnesses not connected to the coronavirus have been significantly easier to trace back to individual resorts.

Three hotel guests died last month from reported carbon monoxide poisoning at a Sandals resort in the Bahamas. Meanwhile, five people fell ill with Legionnaires’ disease — a form of pneumonia often derived from bacteria found in water systems — after staying at The Grand Islander Waikiki Honolulu, a resort that’s part of the Hilton Grand Vacations timeshare network in Hawaii.

In light of these latest incidents, one can’t help but wonder why properties are more likely to face legal ramifications for non-coronavirus cases. What is it about coronavirus cases that make hotels less likely to be on the hook for infections? Is it solely because it’s harder to find the source of the illness, or are there other factors that play a part? And what does all of this mean for hotels and their guests?

We took a closer look at the recent cases and spoke with a legal expert to find out.

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Coronavirus vs. non-coronavirus cases

While a COVID-19 source might have ambiguity when it comes to the eyes of the law, as it is hard to pinpoint where precisely someone was exposed, the latest incidents involving carbon monoxide poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease offer a major legal vulnerability for hotel owners.

“I would rather defend a COVID case almost always because that causation and proof of causation issue that I think is so fundamental,” said Greg Duff, a Seattle-based attorney specializing in the hospitality and tourism industry. “If you have Legionnaires’ on your property and people get sick, that’s a hard case to defend.”

Even though the first case of Legionnaires’ disease tied to The Grand Islander was diagnosed a year ago, many months before the second case occurred in early March of this year and more cases appeared in April and late last month, it was clear where the incidents originated.

Recognizing a pattern where those who had been diagnosed with the disease had also stayed at The Grand Islander, Hawaii’s Department of Health felt confident about identifying the resort as the source of the illness and started working with the property to fix any related problems. In a statement, the agency mentioned installing new shower filters in resort guest rooms to help minimize the likelihood of the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease growing. A spokesperson for Hilton Grand Vacations confirmed this joint effort to address the situation.

“Our top priority at The Grand Islander is to provide a safe environment for our owners, guests, and team members,” the Hilton Grand Vacations spokesperson said in a statement to TPG. “We have been working closely with the Hawaii Department of Health as they conduct their investigation. We have also engaged leading experts and under their direction are implementing additional precautionary measures at The Grand Islander to ensure our safeguards are in line with best practices.”

Similarly, the tragedy in the Bahamas had a clear link to Sandals Emerald Bay, as the property is where the three guests were found unresponsive, so Bahamian officials focused on the property during their investigation.

“Despite initial speculation, Bahamian authorities have concluded the cause was an isolated incident in one standalone structure that housed two individual guest rooms and was in no way linked to the resort’s air conditioning system, food and beverage service, landscaping services or foul play,” Sandals Resorts said in a statement released last month.

Because the carbon monoxide poisoning was easy to trace, the hotel would find it next to impossible to skirt legal responsibility.

The same cannot be said for coronavirus cases. Even when there are superspreader events like a conference or convention, one can never be entirely sure if an individual’s specific case definitively came from that event or elsewhere during daily activities. As a result, properties are less likely to face legal consequences.

How hotels are affected by the pandemic

Despite less liability around COVID-19 cases, hotels have other concerns stemming from the pandemic to worry about.

Because hotel companies rolled out a number of new health and safety regimens in response to the pandemic, with regular promises of thoroughly cleaning and inspecting accommodations so they’re safe for guests posted on their websites, hotel owners face major legal vulnerabilities when such promises don’t pan out and guests fall ill … or worse.

“The worst thing to do from a guest liability perspective is to announce this great new program and then do nothing about it,” Duff said. “The fact that every brand or ownership group have all adopted a similar program also sort of puts a burden on hotels in that, if everyone is doing it, it almost by default becomes an industry standard.”

While Duff said guests still have to “demonstrate that the hotel was negligent or should have done something different under the circumstances,” because many hotel companies are now offering a certain level of cleaning and safety measures, an industry standard has essentially been set. This means guests can now claim a hotel did not meet that industry standard and should therefore be responsible for the disease they contracted, giving guests more legal options should they fall ill.

Featured photo by Patrick T. FALLON/AFP.

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