Bonafini v. G6 Hospitality Property, LLC, 101 Mass. App. Ct. 612 (2022): Appeals Court Holds Hotel Has No Duty To Prevent Guest’s Suicide
Murphy & Riley, P.C.
In a recent decision, the Appeals Court affirmed the holding of Judge Ferrara in the Hamden Superior Court that an innkeeper does not have a general duty to rescue even if the inaction results in suicide. The Plaintiff argued that innkeepers have an affirmative duty to prevent their guests from suicide due to a preexisting special relationship. The Defense argued that this duty is not found in any other jurisdiction and that it would not coalesce with how Massachusetts courts have imposed these duties on other special relationships.
The Bonafini decision draws from and follows the nation-wide trend of how far duties can be imposed on special relationships, and very specifically for innkeepers. Other jurisdictions have refused to extend the special relationship between innkeepers and guests to include a duty to prevent their guests from suicide. However, the Appeals Court did not specifically preclude all scenarios from potentially imposing this duty, and the Appeals Court left the door open to allow for another case to revisit this (in very specific circumstances).
The issue presented on appeal was:
-- Whether an innkeeper has a duty to rescue when the family informs an employee of a concern for a guest.
In Bonafini, Michael Bonafini checked into a Motel 6 in Chicopee on March 5, 2015. After checking in, Mr. Bonafini started to communicate with his family members, which led the family to believe that he was at risk for attempting suicide. On March 6th, Mr. Bonafini’s mother arrived at the Motel 6 and spoke with Defendant James Vanhoy, a service representative, asking for her son’s room number because she believed her son was at risk of suicide and needed help. Mr. Vanhoy refused to give her the number but did call Mr. Bonafini’s room. Mr. Bonafini stated he did not wish to be disturbed. There was some suggestion from the pleadings in the Superior Court that the mother attempted to locate her son’s room on her own, but it is unclear why that was unsuccessful.
On March 7th, the mother again requested Mr. Bonafini’s room number but was again turned away. An employee attempted to call the room, but Mr. Bonafini hung up immediately. Finally on March 8th, Mr. Bonafini’s wife arrived at the motel and requested the room number but was also refused. This time, because Mr. Bonafini was scheduled to check out at 12:00 p.m., the employee also refused to call the room. After the checkout time passed, the manager, Defendant Laura Denis, forcibly entered Mr. Bonafini’s room only to discover that Mr. Bonafini had hanged himself.
The SJC has previously recognized that innkeepers have a special relationship with their guests and may have an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to prevent certain kinds of harm. The Court in Bonafini specifically cites to theses SJC decisions: Fund v. Hotel Lenox of Boston, Inc., 418 Mass. 191 (1994) (duty to maintain adequate security system to prevent guest from being stabbed by intruder); Bearse v. Fowler, 347 Mass. 179 (1964) (duty to take reasonable care of premises after a slip and fall due to faulty facilities); McFadden v. Bancroft Hotel Corp., 313 Mass. 56, 59, 46 N.E.2d 573 (1943) (duty to take reasonable steps to protect guest from assault by another guest); Addis v. Steele, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 433, 436, 648 N.E.2d 773 (1995) (duty to take reasonable steps to protect guests from fire set by arsonist).
The SJC has also imposed a duty, under certain circumstances, to prevent suicide. McNamara v. Honeyman, 406 Mass. 43 (1989) (hospital-institutionalized patient); Slaven v. Salem, 386 Mass. 885 (1982) (jailor-prisoner) Dzung Duy Nguyen v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., 479 Mass. 436 (2018) (university-student) (which case was distinguished from the rest and is one of the critical reasons that there was no duty imposed in Bonafini). The Appeals Court in Bonafini differentiates these from the relationship between an innkeeper and its guest by the custodial nature apparent in those relationships. The innkeeper-guest relationship is inherently designed to be shorter and more independent. The Order on the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings articulates this sentiment the best. “[E]ven where a special relationship exists, not all affirmative duties to rescue, including the duty to prevent suicide, are created equal. For example, Massachusetts imposes a greater affirmative duty on a hospital to prevent the suicide of a mental health patient than it does on a university to prevent the suicide of a student.”
Here is where the distinction between having a general duty to prevent a suicide (hospital-institutionalized patient), and a two-prong test of whether there was “actual knowledge of either (1) the person’s recent suicide attempt, or (2) the person’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide” diverge. Bonafini v. G6 Hospitality Property, LLC, 101 Mass. App. Ct. 612, 615 (2022).
Following the two-part test above, the Court in Bonafini reasons that the Defendants (the hotel and two employees) had no actual knowledge of a recent suicide attempt by their guest. As such, the first prong of the test was quickly resolved. The more interesting distinction that the Court draws here, is that when the mother and wife attempted to gain access to the room, the Court states that they merely informed the employees that Mr. Bonafini was at risk of suicide, but did not inform them that Mr. Bonafini stated an intention or plan to attempt suicide. Additionally, during the calls placed by the hotel employees to Mr. Bonafini’s room, there was nothing that suggested to the employees that his intention was to attempt suicide. The family informing the hotel of a concern, without more, was not sufficient to trigger a duty to rescue.
Of note, the Court in Bonafini declined to answer the question of whether the innkeeper-guest is even the type of special relationship where a duty to rescue should be imposed, holding the underlying facts would not be sufficient to find that such a duty would apply here regardless.
Whether an innkeeper has a duty to rescue as a result of its special relationship with its guests as outlined above was the only issue that was considered by the Appeals Court in this case. In the Superior Court, several other issues were presented, including whether public policy should impose such a duty on innkeepers due to the prevalence of suicides that occur in motels. The Superior Court Judge suggested in his decision that this was an issue best suited for the Appeals Court. In the briefs by both sides, there was an additional discussion about inherent privacy rights that accompany hotel rooms and whether an employee should only give up personal information regarding a guest if there is a subpoena or warrant. However, this was not addressed by the decision of the Superior Court, and neither issue was brought up on Appeal.
The Bonafini decision did not perfectly tie up the loose ends of whether an innkeeper has a duty to rescue a guest in any circumstance. However, based on how the Appeals Court addressed the parallels between the innkeeper and a university, with requiring actual knowledge, and the fact that other jurisdictions have followed this trend, it is unlikely that a general duty will be imposed on an innkeeper, and that the hotel would have to have knowledge of either previous attempts at suicide, or knowledge of a guest’s intention or plan to take their own life. This makes sense in light of the distinction the Appeals Court makes between a person who is involuntarily committed to a place, to a person who is still in a special relationship, but to whom more independence is given. It would be interesting to see how the Court would balance the right to privacy here with the special relationship already present between the innkeeper and guest, if the mother and wife had given appropriate notice to the employee.
The Plaintiff has applied for Further Appellate Review with the SJC.