A motel and its employees have no duty to prevent a guest’s suicide even when family members warn that the guest is a suicide risk.
A Massachusetts Court of Appeals has ruled that while innkeepers may have an affirmative duty to maintain security and protect guests from some harms such as assaults by intruders or other guests, they have no affirmative duty to rescue, including to prevent a guest’s suicide.
Michael C. Bonafini took his life while he was a guest in a Motel 6. In a wrongful death action against the motel corporation and several employees, his family contended that the employees should have called the police to conduct a wellness check after they refused multiple requests by his mother and wife for his room number so they could help him because they said he was a suicide risk.
“Although we recognize that the defendants were informed by Bonafini’s family of their concerns for him, this –- without more — is not enough to have triggered a duty on the defendants to rescue, as tragic as the consequences of inaction were,” the appeals court wrote.
The appeals court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the suit, noting that “even assuming that Massachusetts would recognize a duty on the part of an innkeeper to take reasonable steps to prevent a guest’s suicide, no such duty arose in the circumstances alleged here.”
According to court documents, Bonafini checked into the Motel 6 in Chicopee on March 5, 2015. Shortly afterwards, Bonafini began communicating with family members, and they became aware that he was at risk of attempting to kill himself. The next day, Bonafini’s mother went to the motel to try to help him. While there, the mother told a service representative at the motel that Bonafini was at risk of suicide and needed assistance. The employee would not give the mother Bonafini’s room number, but he did call Bonafini’s room. Bonafini said he did not wish to be disturbed.
Bonafini’s mother returned to the motel the following day and again asked for Bonafini’s room number, saying that Bonafini was at risk of suicide and that she needed his room number to assist him. A motel employee again refused to provide the room number, but placed a call to Bonafini in his room. This time, Bonafini answered the call but immediately hung up.
The following morning, Bonafini’s wife went to the motel to try to address his well-being. Motel employees refused to assist Bonafini’s wife or to contact Bonafini before his noon checkout time. At noon, the manager of the motel and two other motel employees forcibly entered Bonafini’s room and discovered that he had hanged himself.
In its lawsuit, the family asked the court, as a matter of first impression, to impose on innkeepers a duty to prevent their guests from suicide.
The court noted that past rulings have found that innkeepers may in certain circumstances have an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to prevent certain kinds of harm. They have a duty to maintain adequate security system to prevent a guest from being stabbed by intruder. They have a duty to take reasonable care of the premises. They have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect a guest from an assault by another guest or a fire set by an arsonist.
But, the court continued, Massachusetts courts – as well as appellate courts in other states– have not yet imposed on innkeepers an affirmative duty to rescue, including to prevent a guest’s suicide.
The court added that while such a duty has been found in cases of other relationships — such as universities and students, hospitals and patients, and prisons and inmates — those are not the same as innkeeper and guest relationships. “Such relationships differ from those of an innkeeper to its guests because they have a custodial quality, involve a form of dependency or protection, and are of longer duration than is typical of hotel guests.”
Also, in the other cases, the duty is triggered only by actual knowledge of either the person’s recent suicide attempt, or the person’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the court stressed.
In Bonafaini’s situation, the court noted that motel employees were not alleged to have had actual knowledge that Bonafini had recently attempted suicide, or that he had “stated plans or intentions to commit suicide.” Instead, all that is alleged is that Bonafini’s mother and wife informed employees that Bonafini was at risk of suicide, and asked for his room number so they could assist him. They did not tell the employees that Bonafini had stated an intention or plan to commit suicide or that he had recently attempted suicide.
Also, Bonafini himself is not alleged to have told motel employees anything other than that he wished not to be disturbed or that they themselves observed anything about Bonafini that would suggest he had suicidal intentions.