Appeals Court says Choice Hotels not liable for death of Gulfport inn customer

Published 11:53 pm Saturday, November 25, 2006

Choice Hotels International cannot be held responsible for the death of a Texas man, who was murdered when two men burst into his Gulfport motel room, the Mississippi Court of Appeals has ruled.

The ruling came in the appeal of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Darlene Allen, whose husband, William, of Galveston County, Texas, died from a gunshot wound in the back after two men broke into the couple’s room at the Comfort Inn in Gulfport in 1996.

Darlene Allen sued R.C.P. Enterprises, which was doing business as Comfort Inn, the franchisee, and R.D. Patel, its managing partner, and against Choice Hotels International, the franchisor.

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Choice Hotels International franchises hotels under many names including Comfort Inn, Quality and Sleep Inn.

Allen alleged the defendants did not provide reasonable security to protect guests at the hotel, which led to her husband’s death.

In 2004, a Harrison County judge dismissed Choice Hotels as a defendant. The judge ruled Choice was not liable because it did not control or have the right to control the day-to-day operation of the hotel.

On appeal, Darlene Allen argued among other things that Choice exercised control over security at the hotel because it required room doors have a peephole, deadbolt locks and security bars on any sliding doors.

“We are not persuaded that these requirements show enough control to shift responsibility for safety to Choice,” Appeals Judge Tyree Irving wrote this week for the Court of Appeals.

“These few requirements regarding hotel doors do not show that Choice had the right to control both the means and the ends of security at the Comfort Inn.”

Irving said as in most franchise agreements, the Comfort Inn operate independently of Choice. He said Choice generally controlled the trademark or trade name, such as the design of the hotel, display of the logo and registration system, for example.

“In other words, the franchisee is operating a hotel that is designed to look like other Comfort Inns, so that customers feel as though they are not staying in a completely different hotel,” Irving said.

Irving said Choice put on testimony from one its corporate officers that Choice did not control the hotel’s daily operations. Irving said Allen offered no testimony to contradict what the officer said.

Irving said R.C.P. Enterprises also displayed, in a prominent location in the hotel’s lobby, a sign indicating that the Gulfport Comfort Inn was run by an independent party, and not by Choice.