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Fortney v. Hotel Rancroft

APRIL 7, 1955.




Appeal from the Superior Court of Cook county; the Hon. NORMAN C. BARRY, Judge, presiding. Reversed and remanded.


Rehearing denied April 7, 1955.

March 16, 1955. Additional Opinion,

Plaintiff sues to recover for injuries, resulting from an assault upon him while he was a guest of the defendant hotel. There was a jury trial, and at the close of the plaintiff's case, no defense being offered, defendants' motion to direct a verdict was sustained. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and judgment was entered upon the verdict. To reverse this judgment, plaintiff appeals.

The evidence discloses that defendants owned and operated the Hotel Rancroft in Chicago, to which the general public was invited as guests. Plaintiff admittedly was a guest of the hotel and had occupied room 404 on the fourth floor of the hotel for approximately eight years prior to the occurrence in question. The entrance to the hotel is from Randolph street. Leading from the entrance is a long, narrow lobby to the elevators, the staircase and the hotel clerk's office and desk. The desk is located at the west wall. Three elevators leading to the upper floors are at the east wall, opposite the clerk's desk. Immediately to the south of the clerk's desk is the stairway leading to the upper floors of the hotel.

The only entrance to plaintiff's room was through a door, which had a Yale lock. The key to his room was issued to him when he became a guest of the hotel and bore an identification tag marked "Hotel Rancroft." He was directed by the management to leave the key at the desk with the clerk whenever he left the hotel. He always followed the direction, never leaving the hotel without turning the key in at the desk, even if he only went out for a newspaper.

On the night of the occurrence, James Quinn was on duty at the clerk's desk, apparently in charge of the hotel during his hours of duty. He took charge of the guests' keys left at the desk, took care of the telephone and ran the elevators.

On Sunday, February 19, 1950, plaintiff left the hotel around midnight. He was taken down in one of the elevators operated by Quinn. On leaving his room, he pulled the door shut and heard the tumbler click, and the door was locked. He left the key with Quinn at the desk on the lobby floor and went to the tavern next door. Nothing unusual occurred during his stay at the tavern. He left there and visited another tavern on North Clark street. He returned to the hotel, arriving there at approximately 4:00 o'clock in the morning. During the entire evening, he testified, he had not engaged in any arguments or fights with anybody and was not intoxicated. Arriving at the hotel, he entered the lobby, and the only person present was Quinn. He was behind the desk. Quinn gave him his key and took plaintiff in the elevator to the fourth floor. Upon arriving at his room, plaintiff unlocked the door and entered the room. All of the lights were off, and he reached around the side of the room to turn the switch for the ceiling lights. Upon turning on the lights, he took off his coat and hat and hung them in the closet. He turned toward the bed, and as he did, someone appeared to step out of the bathroom and hit him across the side of the face, knocking him unconscious. He did not regain consciousness until Tuesday afternoon, when he found himself lying across the bed. The houseman and maid were bathing his face. They remained with him approximately an hour. On Wednesday following the attack, blood was observed on the north wall of the room at the right-hand side of the bed and on the bedclothes.

Plaintiff remained in his room all day Wednesday. He telephoned the desk clerk on duty that he was in need of a doctor. He was advised that a doctor had been called, but no medical assistance arrived until Thursday afternoon about 3:00 o'clock. The doctor was accompanied by defendant Rubenstein. He was advised by the doctor to go to Roosevelt hospital and went there in a cab. He was examined there Thursday afternoon, and at the suggestion of the attending doctor, Dr. Udell, an eye specialist, was called in for consultation. They administered shots of penicillin to plaintiff. Sometime thereafter his left eye was removed due to the injury to the eye resulting from the assault. He remained at the hospital seventeen days.

The relationship of innkeeper and guest imposed a duty upon the defendants to use a "very high degree of care" to secure the safety of the guest. Rice v. Warner Hotel Co., 201 Ill. App. 530, 537, followed in Young v. Knickerbocker Hotel Co., 334 Ill. App. 80 (Abst.). In Corpus Juris Secundum, Vol. 43, p. 1175, it is stated:

"The innkeeper must protect his guest, while in the inn, against injuries at the hands of third persons whether they are guests or strangers, where it is within his power or that of his servants to do so."

The ruling of the court in directing a verdict for the defendants presents to us the question whether the evidence, and every reasonable inference which can be drawn from it, tends to prove the charge of negligence in the complaint. If it does, then the court was in error in directing a verdict.

We think that the circumstances disclosed by the evidence called for some explanation from the defendants as to how the stranger, who assaulted plaintiff, could gain entrance to plaintiff's room at the early hour of the morning in question without a key; or how it was possible for the stranger to reach the fourth floor of the hotel, whether by use of the elevator or staircase, without being noticed by the night clerk in charge of the desk. There was no such explanation forthcoming, since no evidence was offered by the defendants.

In the absence of such explanation, we think the evidence presents two reasonable inferences: first, that the stranger, who assaulted plaintiff, was entrusted with a key to plaintiff's room; or, secondly, the key, where usually kept at the night clerk's desk, was left unguarded and thereby made accessible to a stranger. The facts we have detailed and the reasonable inferences we are forced to draw from them, in our opinion, establish prima facie, a breach of defendants' duty, and entitle plaintiff to a jury's determination of the facts. Directing a verdict for the defendants in the instant case denied to ...

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