Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of seven articles covering a story based on the author’s involvement as an expert witness in a Florida court case. Read the first article in the series.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
To summarize, Ivan, a hotel security officer, forced Jack, a 17 year-old mentally disabled boy, into an unoccupied hotel bathroom and committed an act of sexual assault and battery. That led to a civil lawsuit filed by the boy’s parents.
Jack’s attorneys investigated the circumstances of Ivan’s hiring and his employment history to determine whether there was any reason why the hotel either knew or should have known that Ivan would commit an act of sexual misconduct. This theory of liability proved meritless, so Jack’s attorneys looked more closely at the hotel’s duty to provide a safe environment for its guests.
The question was whether the hotel would have had an opportunity to prevent the sexual assault by Ivan if it had been doing everything properly. After a thorough investigation, the facts suggested that the answer was yes.
Investigating the Hotel’s Security Infrastructure
Jack’s attorneys subpoenaed the hotel for information about its security infrastructure, including number and locations of cameras, number of staff on hand during each shift, policies, procedures, and other relevant details regarding how safety and security were handled during the time of the incident.
The hotel was equipped with hundreds of cameras inside and outside. They were in public areas, hallways, elevators, and other locations. So when Ivan met Jack at the elevator lobby and took him across the hotel, he was captured on no less than 10 different cameras.
He was observed in the elevator lobby. He was observed in the hallway that he traversed with Jack across to the meetings area. He was observed in the elevator taking Jack up to the second floor. He was observed in the meeting room foyer, unlocking the bathroom door and directing Jack to enter. The only material part of the incident that was not captured on video was inside the bathroom itself. But that wasn’t necessary to establish that the hotel could have intervened and prevented Ivan from assaulting Jack.
Should Cameras have been Live-Monitored?
The video recordings indicated that the time that elapsed from the point Ivan met Jack in the elevator lobby until they walked into the bathroom on the other side of the hotel was between four and five minutes. So the follow-up questions became: Were the cameras being live-monitored? And if so, why didn’t someone notice that Ivan was doing something suspicious and intervene?
It’s worth noting that, as a safety and security policy, cameras should be live-monitored unless there are clearly posted signs stating otherwise. Guests generally look at closed circuit cameras as an indication that the area is safe because the area is being surveilled. When cameras are not live-monitored, without notice to guests, hotels open the door to liability because they fail to either honor or correct guest safety expectations.
In response to questions from Jack’s attorneys about camera monitoring, the hotel agreed to allow an onsite inspection of its security monitoring facilities. Jack’s attorneys brought me along to observe and testify about the operation relative to industry standards.
The security control center was typical of hotels of the same size. It included several large television monitors that displayed anywhere from four to 20 camera views across the screens. Some views were fixed and constant, and others rotated through the hotel’s hundreds of cameras.
This was the central command point for the security team. One or two security officers occupied the room at all times. They would receive reports via telephone, monitor situations in real-time via surveillance, and direct security resources via radio.
One might think that the hotel was negligent because every camera view was not being live-monitored at all times. After all, a rape or a murder could occur when the camera view surveilling the location of the crime wasn’t visible due to its rotation cycle.
Reasonableness prevails here. If a hotel has hundreds of cameras, and was held accountable for everything that happened in view of those cameras without exception, the hotel would arguably need hundreds of security officers, each monitoring one camera around the clock. This of course would be impossible.
So hotels attempt to strike a healthy balance. They provide a reasonable amount of camera monitoring resources and they task security officers with viewing a reasonable number of camera angles on a frequently rotating basis. The idea is to maximize the probability of spotting dubious activity. The definition of “reasonable” varies from property to property, but the facilities and resources provided by the hotel in this case did not deviate significantly from other similar properties.
This might seem like a solid excuse for the hotel. If the cameras are constantly rotating, and only 10 or so out of hundreds captured Ivan’s suspicious behavior, what are the odds that any one of those cameras would have been visible on the security monitors during the four to five minutes that the incident took place?
Unfortunately for the hotel, this defense was undermined by one key detail. I mentioned earlier that a few camera views were fixed and constant, showing the same location at all times. This was programmed intentionally so that security could keep a constant eye on high-traffic areas in the hotel. These high-traffic areas included the elevator lobby where Ivan first confronted Jack, and several of the hallways through which Ivan took Jack across the building.
With this evidence, there was no doubt that the hotel security members would have seen Ivan’s suspicious behavior and could have intervened to stop him if they had acted promptly and competently.
Security Officers Didn’t Recall Seeing Anything Peculiar
When Jack’s attorneys deposed the security officers responsible for monitoring the surveillance cameras on the night of the assault, they said they had no recollection of seeing Ivan or noticing anything peculiar. This was not necessarily surprising. Again, the security officers watching the cameras also had other duties including manning the phones and radios that would have simultaneously competed for their attention. It’s possible they might have been busy with other duties. And even if they were watching the cameras constantly, passively “seeing” something on a camera is one thing; recognizing that something is out of place requires considerably more focus.
This would not be the end of the story, however. The hotel had one more defense claim, which was an attempt to explain why the security officers monitoring the cameras didn’t recall anything remarkable about that evening. The hotel asserted that, even if security did observe Ivan’s behavior, it would not necessarily have been recognized as suspicious or inappropriate.
In the next part, I’ll discuss how Jack’s attorneys handled this argument.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.