Hotel liability varies from state to state Valuables: Here's a rundown on the limits of responsibility when your possessions vanish.

May 31, 1998|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Dick returns to his San Francisco hotel room one day and finds his $1,100 leather jacket missing.

Jane checks into a Denver hotel, realizes she's running late, and rushes back out to dinner, leaving her $2,000 watch on a bedside table instead of placing it in a hotel safe.

The jacket vanishes. The watch goes missing. What, if anything, do these hotels owe Dick and Jane? If he's lucky, Dick gets $250. Jane, however, is probably out of luck altogether.

These are hypothetical cases. But they point toward some underappreciated rules of thumb when it comes to American hotels and a traveler's possessions.

First is this: Every state makes its own civil codes limiting the responsibility of hotels for a guest's possessions, and though most follow the same general pattern, different states set different dollar limits on how much can be recovered. For instance, California's ceiling is $250, or, in some unusual cases, $1,000; Colorado's is $5,000.

But when you ignore a hotel's offer of a safe-deposit box, you're basically excusing the hotel from liability if your valuables vanish. (Evidence of hotel negligence can change this sometimes, but authorities say it's difficult to predict how a state court will choose to define negligence.) Here's a look at the laws and limits in some frequently visited states.

* California: If you can persuade the hotel or a court that there was negligence or dishonesty among hotel employees, you could get up to $250 per missing or damaged suitcase, box, bundle or package (and contents), $500 per missing trunk (the law was first drafted in the 19th century) and another $250 maximum for all other property, including jewelry - with an overall maximum of $1,000 per incident. If negligence isn't clear, you may get nothing. And as in the other states named here, you can never recover more than the missing items were worth.

* Arizona: Legislators have not set specific liability limits for lost or stolen baggage, so if Dick is in Tucson when his jacket vanishes and he can demonstrate negligence or dishonesty, he might be able to recover the full value of the jacket. If a guest uses the safe, the hotel's liability generally stops at $500, although evidence of negligence could change that. In fact, says the law, an innkeeper "may refuse to receive for deposit from a guest articles exceeding a total value of $500." Arizona law also limits a hotel's liability for items in storerooms and baggage rooms to $100.

* Colorado: The state liability limit for items entrusted to

hotel safes is relatively high - $5,000 - but for other items left in rooms, the ceiling is generally $200, and for luggage left in storage after a guest has checked out, the cap is $50.

* Hawaii: Hotels generally are liable for no more than $500 for valuables stored in an office safe. Without negligence or dishonesty, the hotel also is free from liability for personal property in a guest room, including luggage, unless a guest has made an agreement with the hotelier. And even if there is such agreement, the hotel's responsibility is capped at $500.

* Nevada: State statutes absolve hoteliers of liability for lost, damaged or stolen items in guest rooms, unless there is "gross neglect" by management. Liability for safe deposits is capped at $750, and hotels are free to turn away deposits worth more. Overall liability limit for a guest's possessions, including luggage and other items, is $750.

* New York: Statutes generally limit hotel liability to $500 for clothing and most other property in rooms, and no more than $1,500 for valuables in a safe or safe deposit box. (If fault or negligence can be proved, liability could go higher.) The law also sets a liability limit of $200 for items left in checkrooms, and $250 for items being transported for a guest by the hotel.

Hotel-industry officials are quick to say that safeguards against theft have greatly improved in recent years, most notably with the use of electronic key cards instead of keys. But there's no substitute for being alert yourself.

A few tips:

* Never let your bags out of your sight in any hotel lobby, unless a bellhop has taken responsibility for them.

* When you have the option, use the lobby safe rather than a safe in your room. (Some state statutes offer more protection to items stored in lobby safes, which are often assumed to be more secure.)

* Remember that your airline tickets (and your passport, if you're abroad) are valuables too, so lock them away.

* As for jewelry, travelers also may want to consider the travel habits of Peggy Crook, Hilton Hotels Corp. director of claims administration, who has been looking at hotel-guest claim forms for 26 years.

When she's on the road, Crook says, she almost always limits her valuables to "costume jewelry only. And if I do take real gold, it would not exceed $1,000. And it's either in the safe-deposit box or in my purse - it's never in the room."

In brief

Budget

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