America is back on the road, and if you stay in a hotel, today’s story may save you thousands of dollars as we look at something few travelers have heard of: Innkeepers Laws. Intended to protect hotels, they can cause guests more grief than one can imagine.
Let’s take California’s Innkeepers law — on the books since 1872 — which permitted Marriott, the world’s largest hotel chain, to engage in conduct that I can only describe as morally reprehensible, in effect validating a shocking rip-off of one of their guests enabled by a hotel employee.
Marriott’s mission statement is “to enhance the lives of our customers by creating and enabling unsurpassed vacation and leisure experiences.”
“And they sure did last year for Bob Sabouni, who checked into the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. His brief stay became an egregious example of a hotel using a grossly outdated statute to pour salt onto a wound of a guest – that they caused, ” observes Santa Monica, Calif.-based attorney and public relations consultant Nicole Wool, who has been closely following this case.
“What happened to Bob was so unfair, so unconscionable and shocking. Judging by comments posted online following television network news stories that went viral, this incident is not currying much favor with the public, and understandably so,” she notes.
Checked In But Room Not Ready
Based on court records and police reports, the facts of this case are not in dispute. In June of 2021 Sabouni and his friends chose the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco to attend a Giants game. Checking in, they were told their room wasn’t ready, so, the hotel valet held their luggage, giving them each a claim check.
Returning after the game, “Everyone’s bags were there but mine,” Bob said, according to news reports.
So, how could this have happened?
That afternoon, according to the judgement by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Ross, recorded on Marriott’s surveillance equipment, a man walked into the hotel saying that he checked his baggage but lost his claim check.
“Remarkably, without seeking any identification, a Marriott employee invited the man into the baggage room and allowed him to select the baggage he claimed to have checked,” the judgment states. “Sadly for Sabouni, Marriott gave the man all Sabouni’s possessions, including: a Briggs & Riley rollaway bag, a Tumi leather backpack, an iPad Pro, a MacBook Pro, a 4 TB hard drive, clothing, toiletries and personal items, which Sabouni values at $8,194.79.”
Marriott Initially Promised to Fully Reimburse Bob
“Discovering their negligence, the hotel staff initially promised to reimburse Bob, but then they refused. He went to small claims court, and obtained a judgment,” of $5,000, Wool notes, adding, “But instead of abiding by the court’s decision, Marriott’s attorney, Maria Lampasona, a partner with a major San Francisco law firm, filed an appeal!”
Judge Ross’ scathing opinion stated, “Rather than compensating its guest for a loss solely attributable to Marriott’s conduct, it relies on (an 1872 Innkeepers Law in the California Civil Code) section 1859 and contends its exposure should be limited to $500. Section 1859’s limit of liability has not been revised to accord with the current value of luggage, clothing and most notably computer equipment and its data.
“One might expect Marriott to recognize the aberration and, in the interest of customer relations, to pay the judgment. Instead, Marriott appealed.”
Judge Ross went on to state, “This is one of the rare instances where the law does not allow the court to achieve the equitable result as it must apply section 1859.”
The judge was able to increase the award to $1,553, still far lower than the approximately $9,000 loss Bob experienced.
Right and Wrong, Fairness, Morality and Marriott’s Lawyers
As the story went viral, many readers emailed and phoned, upset, asking:
“Even if this out-of-date law is still on the books, how could Marriott’s lawyer do this to their totally innocent guest? Didn’t anyone see the public relations fiasco this would create? How could they so easily ignore fundamental, right-and-wrong morality? Is this what they teach you in law school?”
Southern California employment law attorney Jay Rosenlieb, wrote:
“Appealing this case by relying on a statute from the 1800s was a boneheaded business decision and a public relations disaster.
“Lawyers must counsel clients regarding the consequences of strategies being considered. In this case, did their attorney warn them enforcing a statute from the 1800s is likely to trigger tremendous adverse publicity? Did she say, ‘Merely because you can use this archaic statute to save a few dollars does not mean you should!’
“Just because a lawyer can do something does not mean that it is the right thing to do – often, it is plain wrong!”
Hanford, Calif., business attorney Ron Jones offered these thoughts:
“Marriott spent substantial dollars on attorney’s fees on appeal so as not to pay out a small claims judgment, trampling common sense and fairness. ‘Do unto others ...’ The rules are there, easy to understand and to follow. Unfortunately, too many people don’t! Too many lawyers don’t.”
One reader phoned me, saying, “I was in Maria’s law school class and remember this message from our professors: Seek fairness, a just result, stand up to clients who ask you to use your skills to achieve patently wrong, unfair results. Remember the legacy of Nuremberg.”
Fresno-based Neil Williams, retired publisher of the Hanford Sentinel, wrote:
“The issue was obvious: Do the right and moral thing for your customer. Marriott’s attorney could have been the ‘hero’ by taking the lead in addressing such an outdated law and even seeing changes made to correct an obvious flaw on behalf of her client.”
The Bottom Line: Recommendations for Hotel Guests
Losses such as Bob’s are generally covered under homeowners and renters insurance — but a claim might trigger a premium increase. If you do have to file a claim, here’s a tip: While it is an extra step, insurance claims representatives recommend that when packing your luggage, take photos or a video to prove the contents.
And be extra cautious. When you’re on a trip, leave any valuables at home that you can. In other words, only pack what you can afford to lose.
I asked Marriott, their attorney and her senior partner for comment on the situation. So far, nothing.