Most hotels and motels are affiliated with a national brand such as Hilton or Marriott. This means that individual hotels are owned and operated locally but comply with certain standards imposed by the national brand. Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals considered the issue of whether a national brand could be held liable for injuries sustained by a customer at a locally owned hotel.
Bright v. Sandstone Hospitality, LLC
Wingate by Wyndham is a brand name used by more than a dozen mid-priced hotels in Georgia (and about 100 throughout the country). In 2008, the plaintiff in this case checked into a Wingate owned and operated by Sandstone Hospitality, LLC. After taking a morning bath in his room, the plaintiff attempted to use the grab bar to lift himself from the tub. The bar separated from the wall, causing the plaintiff to fall and injure his lower back. He subsequently required surgery.
The plaintiff filed a premises liability claim both Sandstone and Wingate International Inns, Inc., the owner of the Wingate by Wyndham brand. The trial judge granted both defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment with respect to Sandstone, but not Wingate.
Judge William M. Ray, II, writing for a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, said Wingate could not be held liable for the conditions of a hotel owned by Sandstone. The judges rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Sandstone was acting as an agent of Wingate. The plaintiff said he treated the Wingate brand’s reputation as assurance that his room would be safe and free of construction defects.
But Judge Ray explained that “merely displaying signs or a trademark may be insufficient to establish an apparent agency relationship.” In other words, using the Wingate name on the front of the hotel did not establish that Sandstone was the brand’s agent. Furthermore, Sandstone clearly displayed signage disclosing that it, not Wingate, owned the property.
Judge Ray also said the plaintiff could not rely on any franchise agreement between Wingate and Sandstone to establish the former’s liability. While the franchise agreement does impose certain safety requirements on Sandstone, the plaintiff cannot rely upon those requirements as a third party. Indeed, the agreement expressly states Wingate assumes no liability.
That does not mean Sandstone can escape liability, however. The appeals court agreed with the plaintiff that there were triable issues of fact against the local operator. Judge Ray said that testimony from the hotel’s general manager established some doubt as to whether the hotel had prior knowledge of the defective bathroom grab bar. The plaintiff also presented testimony from an expert witness who said the “grab bar was defectively installed” and failed to comply with applicable local building codes. For these reasons, Judge Ray said it was appropriate to return the case to the trial court so a jury could hear all of the evidence.