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Obligations and Liabilities Relating to Providing Guestrooms to Minors
in Connection with Prom Nights and Graduation Parties...

California Answers the Question

By Tom R. Arterburn, August 23, 2010
In their statement "Prom Nights and Graduation Parties:  Voluntary Guidelines for Innkeepers" the California Hotel & Motel Association (CH&MA) says it receives numerous questions from its members regarding their obligations and liabilities relating to providing guestrooms to minors in connection with "prom nights" and graduation parties. They recognize that innkeepers face a real dilemma: They are afraid that they might be legally liable if they refuse to rent guestrooms to minors on those occasions, and that they might also be held liable if they make guestrooms available. This issue is also of importance to school officials, parents, and law enforcement officials who are seeking to control alcohol consumption, drug use, and other improper activities, they say.
As a result, CH&MA developed guidelines in cooperation with school officials and parents' groups in the Sacramento area, as well as the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the California Highway Patrol, which say: 
  • Unless otherwise indicated, a minor is an individual under eighteen years of age.
  • Innkeepers have a general duty to admit all persons who seek accommodations, unless the innkeeper has "just cause or excuse" to refuse accommodations.
  • Although each situation will depend on its particular facts and circumstances, grounds to refuse accommodations typically include: 1) Failure to provide reasonable proof of ability to pay the applicable charges.  2) Reasonable belief by innkeeper that prospective guest is seeking accommodations for improper or unlawful purposes.  3) Lack of available guestrooms.  4) Indication of improper conduct including intoxication.
  • Under California's Civil Rights Act (Civil Code Sections 51, et seq.), an innkeeper cannot arbitrarily refuse accommodations to all unaccompanied minors--notwithstanding the facts that they can often disaffirm their contracts, or the act that minors' as a class, might be deemed to be unruly or likely to misbehave. This general rule is subject to two very important exceptions, however, they add.
In 1999, the California Hotel & Motel Association responded to concerns raised by many of its members and wrote and introduced Senate Bill (SB) 1171, which was signed by Governor Davis and became effective January 1, 2000.  Among other things, SB 1171 deals expressly with the prom night and graduation night situation, and states that "Where a minor unaccompanied by an adult seeks accommodations, the innkeeper may require a parent or guardian of the minor, or another responsible adult, to assume, in writing, full liability for any and all proper charges and other obligations incurred by the minor for accommodations, food and beverages, and other services provided by or through the innkeeper, as well as for any and all injuries or damage caused by the minor to any person or property."
Thus, each innkeeper should consider instituting a policy that all minors unaccompanied by an adult must present a written document, signed by a parent, guardian, or other responsible adult, agreeing to pay for all charges and damages as a condition to providing a room to the minor.  Such a policy can be in force all of the time, or only at certain times of the year (e.g., during prom and graduation season), at the discretion of the innkeeper. The key is that an innkeeper who institutes such a policy must be sure to apply it to all unaccompanied minors, uniformly and without discrimination.
Regardless of whether an unaccompanied minor presents a written and signed guarantee to pay for the applicable charges, and any damages, an innkeeper is almost certainly justified in refusing  accommodations to a minor--or to a parent or other adult on behalf of a minor--where the innkeeper reasonably suspects that the guestroom will be used for a party by a group of unaccompanied minors. This is a consequence of 1) the duty of the innkeeper to take reasonable steps to safeguard the peace and quiet of other guests, and (2) the right of the innkeeper to take precautions to safeguard his own property.
Innkeepers must respect the right of their guests - minors and adults - to privacy in the guest rooms. However, innkeepers have the right to enter a guestroom for such purposes, among others, as protecting the innkeeper's property if it is in danger of being damaged, preserving the peace and quiet of the establishment, and preventing the commission of a crime.  When an innkeeper has cause to believe that a crime is being committed (e.g., that minors are consuming alcoholic beverages and/or that drugs are being consumed), the innkeeper has the right to enter the guest room.  It doesn't matter if the innkeeper's belief is based on personal knowledge or observation, or if it is based on other information which comes to the attention of the innkeeper. For example, it is quite possible that the employees of a hotel or motel will learn of a party, and perhaps develop a reasonable belief that drinking is taking place, even without entering the guestroom (e.g., when other guests complain of noise). 
Where a licensed innkeeper has reasonable grounds to suspect that minors are consuming alcohol, a failure of the innkeeper to take reasonable steps to prevent minors from consuming alcoholic beverages on the premises can also result in the suspension or revocation of the innkeeper's liquor license.
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control takes the position that a licensed innkeeper who knows, or should have known that minors are consuming alcohol on the premises (including a private guest room if it is part of the premises under the license) must take steps to stop the consumption.  Depending on the circumstances, this could mean that the innkeeper might have to remove the alcoholic beverages, and it is usually not enough merely to tell the minors to quit drinking. The Department has taken disciplinary action against innkeepers for failure to take appropriate steps in this type of situation.
Even where grounds exist to evict minors (such as when they are engaging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages), reasonable care must always be exercised as to the timing and method of the eviction so as to avoid to the extent possible injuries and the possibility of liability on a variety of grounds. Thus, the manner in which an eviction is carried out must be carefully handled so that there will be no physical violence, and employees should not do anything which could constitute defamation or the infliction of emotional distress (e.g., making needless derogatory remarks). In cases where there are any reasonable grounds to believe that a proposed eviction could result in violence, the assistance of the local police should be sought--to protect the minors, the innkeeper and his/her employees, and other guests.  Also, minors should never be evicted when doing so would place them in danger; such as late at night--especially if they are without transportation, and/or located in high crime areas.  Innkeepers should consider calling the minor's parents, if possible, so that they can provide safe transportation.
When minors seek accommodations for prom nights or in connection with graduation ceremonies, innkeepers should consider notifying the person seeking the accommodations that guestrooms and suites cannot be used for parties of minors, and that the innkeeper reserves the right to cancel the reservation and to evict the minors in the event that the innkeeper learns that such a party is planned or is taking place. It is suggested that innkeepers consider informing each prospective guest in writing at the time of confirming reservations, of the innkeepers policy in this regard.
A suggested form of notice might read:  "It is the policy of the [name of the hotel/motel] not to make guest room or suite accommodations available to minors for the purpose of parties in connection with proms or graduation ceremonies.  Any such intended use of the guest room or suite that you have reserved is grounds for the cancellation or your reservation. If we learn that such a party is in progress, and particularly if we have reasonable grounds to suspect that alcoholic beverages are being consumed or that other illegal activity is taking place, we will reserve the right to revoke the license to use the accommodation and to immediately evict the occupants."
Innkeepers should develop policies and procedures tailored to their particular properties to deal with this type of situation. For example, if an innkeeper decides to provide accommodations for such an event, the innkeeper might want to condition providing the room(s) on receiving the names and telephone numbers of parents who promise they will be available in the event there is any problem during the party.  All employees should be carefully informed in advance as to their responsibilities in this area. In California, The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control provides free on-site training of employees as to an innkeeper's responsibilities in dealing with alcoholic beverages and minors. 
As a result of California's measures, other states have started considering the issue, as well.  "We've not done any kind of survey or anything like that, but wherever we go, they all want to get a copy of the law, and know how they can implement something similar," says James Abrams, California Hotel and Lodging Association.  "We are always getting calls from other states, who are interested in enacting similar laws."
According to Hotel & Motel Management magazine, recently in Florida, several managers raised questions about their legal liability if they refused to rent a room to anyone younger than 18 years old. 
Florida Hotel & Motel Association officials say throughout the years, there have been instances of high school students renting rooms for parties and then trashing the rooms.  As a result, many hoteliers attempted to curtail this by not renting rooms to teenagers, but the problem was compounded when the parents rent the rooms ahead of time for their kids.
Reportedly, many Florida hoteliers refuse teenagers and/or require guests to be 18 or older.
In New York, the law is vague as it applies to people younger than 18, say officials there.  And there are no state laws that prevent a hotel from renting to teenagers, he said. 

Tom R. Arterburn is an independent journalist and director of The Resume Institute, a job-search firm focused on the hotel industry.

Tom R. Arterburn, Executive Director

Also See: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Protects Against Discrimination, But Not So for Graduating High Schoolers Seeking a Hotel for Year End Parties / June 2003

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