Suit greenlighted by appeal wraps up with settlement

The state supreme court said a hotel has a duty to keep its guests safe.

By Mike Allen, The Roanoke Times – May 15, 2008

Ryan Taboada and his family checked into a Roanoke hotel on March 27, 2003. When he went outside to get his luggage, a man shot him eight times and stole his van with his 3-year-old daughter still inside.

This week, a Roanoke judge signed an order dismissing the $3 million lawsuit Taboada filed against the owners of Holiday Inn Express on Gainsboro Road, saying the two sides “have compromised and settled their differences.”

In between came a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia that changed the law governing the obligations of innkeepers to their guests.

Alan Gnapp, lawyer for Daly Seven Inc., the company that owns the hotel, declined to comment about the settlement, as did Taboada’s lawyer, S.D. Roberts “Rabbit” Moore.

But Richard Samet, a Richmond defense lawyer who has written a legal article on the Taboada case, said the state supreme court decision so broadened the liability of innkeepers that “I don’t see how it could not have had an effect on the mediation and settlement of the case.”

Virginia Beach lawyer and legal expert Steven Emmert suggested that the high court’s precedent-setting decision could have been influenced by the egregiousness of what happened to Taboada. “It was a horrifying situation,” he said.

A Florida businessman, Taboada and his family were in town visiting a cousin. When Derrick W. Smith sprayed him with gunfire, it left him temporarily paralyzed, with two collapsed lungs. His daughter was rescued minutes later unharmed after Smith wrecked while being chased by police.

In his lawsuit against the hotel, filed before Smith received a 76-year prison sentence, Taboada accused Daly Seven of cutting back on security at the hotel despite knowing that it operated in a high-crime area and that guests could be in danger of assault.

Daly Seven argued that the company couldn’t be held liable because there was no way for the hotel to know Taboada was going to be attacked, and Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Clifford Weckstein agreed.

Taboada appealed, and in 2006 the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously overturned Weckstein’s decision, saying Taboada’s lawsuit could go forward. The justices ruled that an innkeeper has a duty to protect the safety of guests akin to that of trains and airplanes toward their passengers, and that Daly Seven should have known Taboada could be in danger because of the number of crimes and incidents that had already taken place on the property.

Daly Seven’s lawyer at the time, Stan Barnhill, requested that the decision be reconsidered in a petition so strongly worded that the justices reprimanded him and barred him from practicing in front of them for a year. But the court did reconsider and last year upheld the decision, with two justices dissenting this time, opining that innkeepers should not be held to the “common carrier” standard.

The dismissal order this week ends the case but not its repercussions. “If your hotel is in a high-crime area, you have to take active steps to protect guests from being attacked in your parking lot,” Samet said. “It really does raise the bar considerably for innkeepers.”

He noted, though, that this obligation applies specifically to registered guests, not to people who happen to be on the property or in the building.

“This case has clarified and stated what the obligations of the innkeeper are to the guest,” Moore said. “It will absolutely determine how the law will be looked at in similar situations in the future.”