15 February 2016, Mumbai attack hotel lawsuit settled; trends RE: jurisdiction and liabilities demonstrated

16 February, 2016 Legal

On 21 January 2016, DNA India news reported that the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (owned by Indian Hotels Company Ltd, which is owned by the Tata Group,) had settled a lawsuit filed against it by British citizen Will Pike who was permanently injured during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The settlement outcome was not disclosed to the public.

Mr. Pike and his girlfriend had barricaded themselves in room 316 during the attack, but the fire started by the terrorists threatened to asphyxiate them, so they fashioned makeshift ropes out of towels, curtains, and bed sheets to lower themselves down the side of the building. Some press reports say Mr. Pike’s girlfriend made a successful descent, but the riggings did not hold for Mr. Pike, and he fell 50-60 feet. Other reporting says he went first, and the riggings broke. Regardless, his injuries left him paralyzed below the waist.

Upon filing their lawsuit, Pike and his Leigh Day attorneys argued that the Taj Mahal failed to provide adequate security for its guests and staff even after it had been warned that a terror attack might occur.

The hotel’s attorneys tried to keep the case from being heard in the UK, but in December 2013, the London High Court said that the Tata Group had “a good presence” in the UK, and this helped negate the jurisdiction challenge. Another factor that helped sink the jurisdiction argument was the opinion of the London High Court that the Indian court system might take 20 years to settle the case, which was too long a time period for justice to be heard.

The trends demonstrated by this case are as follows. First, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and a subsequent negligence lawsuit, the assailed hotel might not be able to secure jurisdiction simply because of geography/business location. Foreign courts are increasingly taking on these type cases in order to protect their citizens when they have been injured or killed overseas. This has recently happened with Marriott, and travel company Thomas Cook. Marriott is based in Maryland, USA, and is being sued in Maryland over a US death suffered in a 2008 bombing at its Islamabad, Pakistan property. The Thomas Cook case is not identical, but similar. It is based in London and is being sued in the UK for over 20 British deaths suffered at the hands of an ISIS gunman in 2015 at the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. Thomas Cook did not own the hotel, but it booked tours to it, and it flew people there on its aircraft.

Of course, there are multiple issues that could keep a foreign court from hearing cases like these such as if the plaintiffs are foreign nationals and the hotel company is being sued on its home turf. This was one of many reasons that kept the 2004 Taba Hilton attack case from being heard in the United States. The plaintiffs were mostly Russian and Israeli. In the current global litigious environment, however, this could change at any time.

At any rate, the second trend from the Pike lawsuit, which is a macro trend, is that hotels, (and travel companies, for that matter,) seem to be increasingly held to account regarding security. The argument that a host country’s military and police are supposed to protect a hotel from terrorism is no longer a sure bet. This was one of the arguments used by defendants in the 2004 Taba Hilton case. Nowadays, courts are increasingly taking the view that hotels bear more responsibility for protecting their patrons and staff.

A third trend from the Pike case, and this is a micro trend, is that plaintiffs’ attorneys will hunt for any hint of hotel security negligence and exploit it even if it was deemed a “non issue” by hotel security and perhaps even to government security assets prior to an attack. Trying to use such “non issues” as a legal defense is a losing strategy. Hotels need to go beyond simply providing “basic security” and act on threat issues even if they seem like the state’s responsibility. Going the extra mile on security can save lives and blunt lawsuits.

Overall, the concepts of duty of care and negligence are having a discernible impact on the nexus between hospitality and security. This trend will likely continue as global terrorism continues to escalate and attack soft targets such as resorts and hotels.

Sources and further reading:

26/11 Mumbai attacks: Paralysed British citizen becomes first to win compensation claim,” DNA, 21 January 2016.

What happened to Will Pike on 26/11?,” Wall Street Journal, December 2013.

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