Thomas v. Omni Hotels Management Corporation, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, No. 5:15-cv-00086, 2017 WL 913814 (W.D. Va. March 7, 2017)

On March 7, 2017, the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia issued its opinion in Thomas v. Omni Hotels Management Corporation.  In Thomas, the Court applied Virginia law and held that, while hospitality providers have a special relationship with their customers and owe them a heightened duty of care, a customer injured on the provider’s premises “must show that the owner had knowledge, actual or constructive, that a defect existed and that the defect created an unsafe condition.”  Thomas, 2017 WL 913814, at *2 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Plaintiff and her husband were guests at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia in November 2013.  On their first morning at the resort, the couple walked to breakfast.  The temperature that morning was below freezing.  On their walk, the couple passed a fountain with running water.  After breakfast, Plaintiff and her husband walked past the fountain again and Plaintiff slipped on ice.  Later, after the incident, Omni employees inspected the area and observed clear ice on the walkway around the fountain.  Plaintiff brought an action against Omni for the injuries she sustained.  She argued that Omni was negligent in failing to maintain a safe walking area around the fountain and failing to remove the ice.  Omni moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to establish that Omni had notice of the dangerous condition.

In Virginia, hospitality providers have a special relationship with their guests and owe them “a heightened duty of care ‘to use the utmost care and diligence of very cautious persons.’”  Id. (quoting Morfolk & W.R. Co. v. Birchfield, 105 Va. 809 (1906)).  If this heightened duty of care is not met, hospitality providers “will be held liable for the slightest negligence which human care, skill, and foresight could have foreseen and guarded against.”  Id.  However, this does not mean that hospitality providers are insurers of a guest’s safety.  In order to recover, a guest must show that the provider had either actual or constructive knowledge that a defect existed and that the defect created an unsafe condition.  In the instant case, the Court found that Plaintiff was unable to show that Omni had constructive notice because she failed to demonstrate that the ice around the fountain had existed for a sufficient period of time.  The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Omni created a dangerous condition, and held that there was no evidence showing that Omni engaged in any affirmative conduct that created ice around the fountain.

In light of this decision, practicing attorneys, and particularly attorneys with clients in the hospitality industry, should raise arguments in their motion for summary judgment highlighting their client’s lack of actual or constructive notice of any defect.