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Jordan v. Marriott International, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 28, 2018


          MCFADDEN, P. J., RAY and RICKMAN, JJ.

          RICKMAN, JUDGE.

         After she checked out of an Atlanta hotel operated by Marriott International, Inc. and returned to her home in North Carolina, Wendy Jordan discovered that she accidentally had left valuable jewelry locked in her hotel room safe. At Jordan's request, hotel staff recovered the jewelry, but some of the jewelry later went missing from a secure area at the hotel. After Jordan sued Marriott, the trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Marriott, essentially holding that under the Georgia innkeeper statutes, Jordan could recover at most $1, 000, well below the value of the lost jewelry, plus possible damages for bad faith. Jordan appeals and Marriott cross appeals, each from certain aspects of the trial court's ruling. For the reasons below, we affirm the trial court's rulings with one exception.

         Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). On appeal, we construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment, giving that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Koch, ___ Ga. ___ (812 S.E.2d 256) (2018). Our review is de novo. Toyo Tire N. Am. Mfg., Inc. v. Davis, 299 Ga. 155, 161 (2) (787 S.E.2d 171) (2016).

         So construed, the record shows that Jordan had been a regular guest at the Buckhead Marriott for at least 10 years prior to 2015. When Jordan stayed there from January 28 to January 30, 2015, she locked a bag of valuable jewelry in the safe located in her room. After departing the hotel at approximately 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. on Friday, January 30[1] and returning to her home in North Carolina, Jordan realized that she had forgotten her jewelry, and, via text message that same day, she contacted a Marriott bartender with whom she had become friends through the years. At about 6:30 p.m., Jordan texted, "Thomas!!! I left 30K worth of jewelry in our safe!!! Help me!! What do I do?!!" In response, the bartender spoke to the front desk manager, who said she would speak to the chief of loss prevention at the hotel. Shortly thereafter, the bartender learned that the jewelry had been found, and he texted to Jordan: "We have it."

         The chief of loss prevention and another employee had retrieved the bag of jewelry from the room safe, and the chief logged the items electronically and took a photograph of the jewelry itself. In accordance with written hotel policy, [2] he stored the bag of jewelry in the hotel's Loss Prevention Office, which is a "secure area" accessible only by Loss Prevention officers. Loss Prevention officers were also authorized to store items in a safe deposit box located in the front office area of the hotel. The decision as to where to place an item turned on several factors, including the type of the item and whether the owner would return to retrieve it. The approximately thirteen Loss Prevention officers were the only employees who had access to the Loss Prevention Office and the safe deposit boxes. Marriott hotel guests leave things at the hotel after they checkout on an almost daily basis.

         Shortly after the jewelry was found, Jordan spoke via telephone to a Marriott security employee and described the jewelry that she left in the room safe; the employee confirmed that all of the jewelry had been found. Jordan declined Marriott's offered to mail the jewelry, instead stating that she would prefer to have her brother, who lives in Macon, retrieve it. The Marriott employee stated that the bag of jewelry would be kept in the "hotel safe" until that time. Jordan avers generally that she informed each Marriott employee with whom she spoke about the value of the property. In her deposition, however, Jordan admitted that in the conversation during which Marriott agreed to hold the jewelry for her, she did not inform Marriott about the value of each item or the overall value of the jewelry, nor did she provide a written list of the items. Marriott denies that it was aware of the value at the time it agreed to store the jewelry. Jordan also admits that she did not offer any specific consideration to Marriott in exchange for the offer to store the jewelry in the hotel safe.

         The bag of jewelry stayed in the Loss Prevention Office until the following Monday, when it was locked in a safe deposit box. At some point thereafter, Jordan arranged for the bartender to retrieve the jewelry and take it halfway to Macon to meet her brother and give him the jewelry. That event was scheduled for February 6, 2015, the first day that the bartender and Jordan's brother could meet. On Thursday, February 5, 2015, the bartender spoke to a Loss Prevention supervisor about the plan and was advised to have Jordan provide her permission for the bartender to retrieve the jewelry. On that occasion, which appears to be the first time that the bartender spoke to the supervisor about the jewelry, the bartender explained that Jordan had texted that the jewelry had a value of $30, 000. The supervisor and Jordan then had a telephone conversation in which Jordan gave her permission to give the jewelry to the bartender.

         The bartender returned to the Loss Prevention office on Friday February 6 and accompanied the supervisor to the safe deposit box, where he saw what appeared to be an insignificant amount and value of jewelry in the bag. The bartender then called Jordan who confirmed that some jewelry was missing, and at some point, the bartender, the supervisor, and perhaps other employees, compared the jewelry to the photograph of what Marriott had found in the safe in Jordan's room and saw that much was missing. The supervisor called Jordan to obtain a full inventory of the items that should have been in the safe deposit box, and Jordan gave an approximate value of the jewelry. Although Marriott promised to send the photograph to Jordan, she never received it. The supervisor later called Jordan back and explained that Marriott would investigate what happened and report back.

         A subsequent investigation showed that prior to the jewelry being moved to the safe deposit box, a Loss Prevention officer was seen on hotel security video handling the jewelry in the Loss Prevention Office, and he was suspected of having removed some of it. During later questioning, the suspect admitted that in the video he can be seen cleaning Jordan's jewelry. The suspect refused to answer further questions, and Jordan's jewelry was never recovered. The suspect was terminated when he admitted removing towels from the hotel. Whether the jewelry was in fact stolen by the suspect has not been established. On or about February 19, Jordan returned to Atlanta and made a police report.

         Jordan eventually filed suit against Marriott and asserted claims of negligence per se under Georgia's innkeeper statutes, bailment, breach of contract, and attorney fees.[3] Following discovery, Marriott moved for summary judgment on all claims.

         The trial court held that Jordan's claim of negligence per se under the innkeeper statutes could proceed against Marriott but that her claim was limited by those statutes to $1, 000. For that claim, there remained an issue of fact as to whether Marriott exercised extraordinary diligence in storing the jewelry. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Marriott on Jordan's claims of bailment and breach of contract. And the court granted partial summary judgment on the attorney fee claim, holding that there were disputed issues of material fact as to whether Marriott acted in bad faith in its pre-litigation dealings with Jordan. Jordan appeals the rulings against her, and Marriott cross appeals from the court's failure to grant complete summary judgment in its favor on the innkeeper statute and attorney fee claims.

         1. Jordan contends the trial court erred by limiting her claim of negligence per se to $1, 000 under the Georgia innkeeper statutes. On cross appeal, Marriott contends the trial court erroneously applied the innkeeper statutes to the case because Jordan was not a guest of the hotel at the time Marriott agreed to hold the jewelry for Jordan; rather, Marriott argues that, at best, it gratuitously agreed to store the jewelry. This case requires us to determine the meaning of the various innkeeper statutes and their applicability to the facts at hand. In so doing, we construe the statutes according to their plain meaning except as further noted below. See Georgia Dept. of Juvenile Justice v. Eller, 338 Ga.App. 247, 248 (789 S.E.2d 412) (2016).

         (a) We first address Marriott's argument that the innkeeper statutes govern only the relationship between the inn and a "guest," which is defined as "a person who pays a fee to the keeper of an inn for the purpose of entertainment at that inn," OCGA § 43-21-1 (1), and that Jordan was not a guest at the time that Marriott agreed to hold the jewelry for her to retrieve it. The trial court ruled on Jordan's innkeeper claim while pretermitting whether Jordan still could be considered a guest for purposes of the innkeeper statutes at the time her jewelry was entrusted to Marriott; for purposes of Jordan's bailment claim, the court held that Jordan was not a guest at that time. We hold that there is an issue of fact as to whether Jordan was a guest at the time and therefore whether the innkeeper statutes apply.

         The innkeeper statutes apply only so long as the person retains his or her guest status at the inn. See Summer v. Hyatt Corp., 153 Ga.App. 684, 685 (266 S.E.2d 333) (1980) (hotel guest retained guest status while eating at hotel restaurant located on the premises and therefore hotel owed innkeeper duties); cf. State v. Delvechio, 301 Ga.App. 560, 563 (687 S.E.2d 845) (2009) (a person who obtains a hotel room with a fraudulent credit card is not a "guest" within the meaning of OCGA § 43-2-1 (1)); OCGA § 43-21-7 (innkeeper cannot charge for checking or keeping baggage "while the owner remains a guest of the house").

         Under the innkeeper statutes, a person's status as a guest at the hotel terminates at the expiration of the time period agreed to by the parties and "signed or initialed by the guest." See OCGA § 43-21-3.2.[4] At that time, the innkeeper is authorized to remove a departed guest's property "to a secure place where the guest may recover his or her property without liability to the innkeeper, except for damages to or loss of such property attributable to its removal." Id. Our Supreme Court has held also that when a departing guest has left baggage with an innkeeper with the innkeeper's consent, the innkeeper is still liable for it as an innkeeper "for a reasonable time, to be estimated according to the circumstances of the case." Adams v. Clem, 41 Ga. 65, 67 (1870).[5]

         Here, there is an issue of fact as to whether Jordan could still be considered a guest of the hotel for the purposes of the innkeeper statutes at the time that she entrusted the jewelry to Marriott. First, Marriott failed to meet its burden of showing as a matter of undisputed fact exactly when Jordan ceased to be a guest of the hotel. There are no check-in documents "signed or initialed by the guest" in the record. Second, a jury could find that under the circumstances it is reasonable to conclude that Jordan should still have been considered a guest for the purposes of the innkeeper statutes at the time that she entrusted the jewelry to Marriott. Thus, the trial court correctly refused to find as a matter of law that Jordan was no longer a guest for the purposes of the innkeeper statutes; Marriott's relevant enumeration of error is therefore without merit. But, for the same reason, the trial court erred when it determined as a matter of law that Jordan was not a guest for purposes of addressing Jordan's bailment claim.

         (b) We nevertheless agree with the trial court's determination that if Jordan was a guest as that term is defined in the innkeeper statutes at the time she asked Marriott to keep her jewelry, her claim under the innkeeper statutes is limited to $1, 000.

         "At common law an innkeeper was an insurer of the goods of his guest." Jones v. Savannah Hotel Co., 141 Ga. 530 (81 SE 874) (1914). The innkeeper statutes, OCGA § 43-21-1 et seq., slightly altered this duty with a requirement that an innkeeper "exercise extraordinary diligence in preserving the property entrusted to his care by his guests." OCGA § 43-21-8; see Murchison v. Sergent, 69 Ga. 206, 210 (1883) ("It may be well to say, however, that at common law the rule was perhaps more stringent, yet substantially is very much the same."); OCGA § 43-21-4 ("An innkeeper is a depository for hire[6]; however, given the nature of his business, his liability is governed by more stringent rules, as are set out in [the innkeeper statutes]."). Thus, under the current innkeeper statutes, as stated in the two statutes upon which Jordan relies, "if the loss of such entrusted property occurs through theft and if the guest has complied with all reasonable rules of the inn, the innkeeper shall be liable as an insurer of the stolen property," OCGA § 43-21-8, and "it will be presumed that the innkeeper failed to exercise extraordinary diligence with regard to [loss of property entrusted by a guest to an innkeeper]." OCGA § 43-21-12.

         The innkeeper statutes also provide, however, that "an innkeeper may relieve himself from responsibility for valuable articles belonging to his guest" under various circumstances. Jones, 141 Ga. at 530; see OCGA §§ 43-21-10 through 43-21-12.[7] The liability-limiting aspects of these three statutes provide that (1) "[n]o guest shall recover from the innkeeper more than $750.00 for loss of valuable articles deposited with the innkeeper for safekeeping" without a receipt for the articles from the innkeeper, see OCGA § 43-21-10; (2) no innkeeper shall be responsible in excess of $1, 000 for the loss or theft of "any valuables, including cash, jewelry, etc., which are contained in a package, box, bag, or other container left with the hotel proprietor or innkeeper to be placed in the safe or other depository of the hotel or inn" without a "written contract" for a greater liability, see OCGA § 43-21-11 (a); and (3) other than for "valuable articles which must be delivered to the innkeeper to be deposited in a safe or other place of deposit," no innkeeper shall be responsible in excess of $1, 000 for the "loss of or injury to" a guest's personal property entrusted to the innkeeper unless the guest shall "notify the innkeeper in writing" that the value of the property exceeds $ 1, 000.00 and "upon demand of the innkeeper, furnish the innkeeper a list or schedule of the same, with the value thereof," OCGA § 43-21-12. These three statutes must be read in pari materia, which "means simply that they must be harmonized, and may not be read in a vacuum." Kates v. Brunswick Motel Enterprises, 187 Ga.App. 875, 876 (371 S.E.2d 686) (1988).

         Of these statutes, OCGA § 43-21-11[8] is the most specific and most applicable to the facts of this case in that it expressly pertains to theft of jewelry, contained in a bag, that is left with the innkeeper, and placed in a safe or other hotel depository. That statute therefore controls Jordan's innkeeper claim. See Kates, 187 Ga.App. at 876 (OCGA § 43-21-11 governs the limitation on the liability of an innkeeper for valuables which are deposited in the safe or other depository of the hotel); see also Vines v. State, 269 Ga. 438, 440 (499 S.E.2d 630) (1998) ("For purposes of statutory interpretation, a specific statute will prevail over a general statute, absent any indication of a contrary legislative intent."). That the limiting provision of OCGA § 43-21-12 is not applicable to the present facts is shown also by language therein stating that it applies to "other than valuable articles which must be delivered to the innkeeper to be deposited in a safe or other place of deposit," which clearly references the type of valuables governed by OCGA § 43-21-11.[9]

         Under OCGA § 43-21-11 (a), the innkeeper is liable for amounts greater than $1, 000 for the loss or theft of any valuables only if the parties enter into "a written contract . . . providing a greater liability," OCGA § 43-21-11 (a), which Jordan and Marriott simply did not do. In short, when Jordan declined to have Marriott mail the jewelry to her and requested that Marriott hold the bag of jewelry for her without entering into a written contract providing a greater liability, Marriott's potential liability under the innkeeper statutes for the theft of Jordan's jewelry was limited to $1, 000, as the trial court correctly held. The trial court also correctly held that there is an issue of fact as to whether Marriott exercised extraordinary diligence[10] in safeguarding Jordan's jewelry.

         2. With regard to Jordan's bailment[11] claim, "[a]ll bailees are required to exercise care and diligence to protect the thing bailed and to keep it safe." OCGA § 44-12-43. But "[d]ifferent degrees of diligence are required according to the nature of the bailments." Id. More specifically,

If the bailment is for the benefit exclusively of the bailee [here, Marriott], he must use extraordinary care; if for the mutual benefit of the parties, ordinary care; and if for the exclusive benefit of the bailor [here, Jordan], slight care will suffice.

Merchants' Nat. Bank v. Guilmartin, 88 Ga. 797, 799 (15 SE 831) (1892); see also Gooden v. Day's Inn, 196 Ga.App. 324, 326 (2) (395 S.E.2d 876) (1990) (same) (physical precedent only). Thus, in the event that the innkeeper statutes do not apply, Marriott could be required to show either ordinary diligence or only slight diligence in safeguarding Jordan's jewelry, depending on whether the bailment was for the mutual benefit of the parties or merely for Jordan's benefit. This question is ...

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