As Christmas approaches, many families will gather for outings, reunions or outings at hotels, vacation homes or rental villas. It is common for these resorts and tourist destinations to entice prospective visitors to book by advertising luxurious amenities such as multiple swimming pools, water features, water slides, swim-up bars, cabana service, rainfall showers and more to make the vacation more enjoyable. However, years of experience as a practicing personal injury attorney has made clear that sometimes the glitz, glamour and aesthetic considerations of these luxurious facilities can eclipse real, practical safety concerns. Personal injuries occur as a result of unsanitary pools, faulty balcony railings, and more. Unfortunately, in some instances, these unaddressed safety concerns can result in catastrophic injuries or preventable deaths due to drowning or other accidents.
What is a Hotel Owner’s Legal Responsibility to Guests in Pennsylvania?
Before we proceed any further, please note that premises liability law is defined on a state-by-state basis. This post will focus on the state of premises liability law in Pennsylvania and other laws that govern the health, safety and management of swimming pools in the state.
In Pennsylvania, like most states, the duty that a landowner owes to another individual is based on that individual’s status at the time of the injury. That is, your recourse for injury is dependent on whether you were permitted onto the land. A permitted hotel guest would likely be considered a licensee or invitee whereas one without the right to be on the premises would be considered a trespasser. Invitees and licensees are owed a much greater duty than the duty, if any, owed to a trespasser and are therefore more likely to recover.
For a licensee, a landowner is liable for physical harm if the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge of a condition that should cause the realization that there is an unreasonable risk of harm and that a licensee would not recognize or discover that danger. The landowner must then fail to take action which could include correcting the condition or providing a warning of the danger. Finally, the licensee must not know of the defective condition or the risk it entails. Each of these three elements must be present for liability to be imposed on a landowner for an injury to a licensee in Pennsylvania.
Aside from common law duties that would apply broadly, Pennsylvania also has a bathing code and a number of statutes that contemplate swimming, bathing and water activities in specific locations and circumstances.
- 28 Pa. Code §18 Pennsylvania Bathing Code – Applies to both public pools and recreational swimming facilities. A public bathing place would include a hotel or resort pool, however, absent unique circumstances, a hotel pool is explicitly excluded from the definition of the term recreational swimming facility. The sets forth requirements for the “proper design, operation and maintenance of public bathing places” in Pennsylvania.
- 55 Pa. Code § 3270.115 & 55 Pa. Code 3280.115 (Water activity) – Applies to daycares only with the relevant statue determined by the number of children cared for. Thus while it does not apply to the hotel’s duties, the laws are important to be aware of. They set forth safety requirements including acceptable instructor-child ratios for swimming, the legal requirement to take measures to make both above-ground and built-in pools inaccessible to children when not in use, and health & safety requirements for wading.
Also important to consider is the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. 15 U.S.C.A. § 8001. This federal law requires public pools, including pools opened exclusively for “patrons of a hotel or other public accommodations”, to ensure that an appropriate pool drain that is not an entrapment hazard has been installed. Drains without an anti-entrapment design are defectively designed drains that can create a suction that can trap a person at the poll bottom and cause them to drown.
What Types of Risks Can Be Present at a Hotel or Resort?
In one recent case, we are aware of a vacation villa advertised to potential guests a luxurious pool with beautifully designed steps positioned so that a swimmer can enter the pool in the shallow end. Further, the pool area was landscaped with an elaborate waterfall that poured into the pool’s deep-end producing a soothing roar of water. In short, it was a picturesque set-up that any vacationer would be excited to use.
Unfortunately, several of the men in this particular vacationing party did not know how to swim. Apparently, with the belief that they would be safe in the shallow-end where they could touch the bottom without going underwater, they walked down the entry steps into the swimming pool. However, rather than finding a uniformly smooth and level pool floor in the shallow-end, the men suddenly found themselves sliding down a steep decline into the pool’s deep-end. While two of the non-swimmers were able to struggle back to the shallow section, the other man was unable to do so. The non-swimmers were unable to rescue the third individual due to him being at the bottom of the pool’s deep-end under 8 feet of water. Other guests were unable to hear the cries for help over the roaring waterfall.
Despite being beautiful from an aesthetic perspective, a pool like this is likely in a defective and dangerous condition. A number of reasonable safety measure could significantly reduce the likelihood of death or injury at minimal cost. These steps could include:
- The presence of depth markers on the pool bottom and perimeter so that guests can accurate judge water depth.
- A safety line floated by buoys that would signify the end of the shallow end and the beginning of the deep part of the pool.
- Presence of rescue equipment and the appropriate placement of that equipment at the pool site.
- Presence of an emergency phone or a means of calling for help.
- A posted warning informing guests that the pool’s incline was particularly steep.
The relevant pool was not equipped with any of these safety features. While a residential pool must be equipped with certain safety measures and features, a pool at a hotel or rental property should have even greater protections. Pools at hotels, villas and resorts are likely to be used by non-swimmers who are unfamiliar with the pool and its characteristics and quirks.
In a situation like this, it would be reasonable to conclude that that premises liability would be imposed upon the hotel owner. The pool owners would undoubtedly be aware of the steep incline and the waterfall that isolated the pool area from communicating with the rest of the facility. The pool was lacking any safety equipment or warnings regarding the dangers that guests would not identify or recognize. Furthermore, it would be reasonable to conclude that the foreseeable user of the pool, a short-term guest unfamiliar with the pool’s layout and quirks, would fail to recognize the danger and the risks that a steep slope would create. A pool of this type would certainly require some warning and may even require a higher level of corrective action that could including safety equipment, signage, and warnings, would be needed than at a family swimming pool.