When Erin Andrews, host of “Dancing With the Stars” and “Fox College Football,” was awarded $55 million in her lawsuit against the owner of the Nashville, Tennessee, Marriott and Michael David Barrett, who filmed her naked in her hotel room in 2008, some people were shocked at the amount awarded, yet others were glad to see justice served.
However, those in the hospitality industry had much more to discuss than Andrews’ court victory.
“I’ve been working in the hospitality industry since the mid-70s and I’ve seen people unruly, drunk or get in fights,” said Mark Giangiulio, chairman of the board of the New Jersey Hotel and Lodging Association and general manager of the Grand Summit Hotel. “But I’ve never seen something like this where one had such a passion for another that they went out of their way to get a hold of them.”
Barrett went to the hotel restaurant and used a house phone to ask to be connected to Andrews’ room. When the hotel connected him, he was able to see her room number displayed on the phone, and after discovering that there was an empty room next to hers, he went to the front desk and was able to book it. He then tampered with her hotel room’s peephole to record a video of her changing.
Giangiulio isn’t the only one who hasn’t seen a case like this before, where one’s privacy was compromised and they were videotaped in a hotel setting, then it was discovered because of technology. Ronald Goldfarb, law professor at Middlesex County College, couldn’t find any cases in the court system, either.
Goldfarb said that if a case isn’t appealed, it’s nearly impossible to find their records, so similar cases could exist, although it’s unlikely, and if there are any, there aren’t many.
“Due to the uniqueness of this case, the ruling has established a precedent that has determined that hotels have an obligation to protect their guests in privacy from electronic displays,” he said.
However, even though this new precedent involving technology will exist in the courtroom going further, hotels across the nation have always had the obligation to provide an expectation of privacy for their guests.
Giangiulio said that the Grand Summit Hotel, similar to all other hotels that follow basic rules and regulations, do not give out guest room numbers, and if a guest comes to the front desk and asks for a key, they must provide identification. Also, only internal departments’ phones display room numbers. For example, maids’ service phones will display a room number, but a guest’s phone will not.
“We’re not a military base, we are hospitality, but our aim is to provide a safe and secure venue and we follow the rules,” said Giangiulio.
Giangiulio said with his limited understanding of the case, he feels that the hotel mostly followed standard procedure — Barrett simply went out of his way to get to Andrews. However, he said that, in his opinion, hotel staff should have been more wary of him when he requested a room next to Andrews’.
In Giangiulio’s experience, instances in which one is searching for another come up when a disgruntled spouse checks into the hotel and another comes looking for them. However, the Grand Summit Hotel never provides a room number or phone number to the searching spouse, although they cannot stop them from lingering in the restaurant or lobby. They will also connect them to the rooms, but the phones do not display a room number.
Fiona Andrews of Montclair, a 25-year-old frequent traveler who stays in hotel rooms 20 to 50 days in a year, said that booking a hotel room is the least stressful part of her various journeys, yet she tends to “err on the side of paranoia.”
To protect herself, she looks up reviews of the hotel ahead of time, blocks the peephole, posts the ‘do not disturb’ sign, avoids the elevator, keeps the windows shut and curtains drawn, and sometimes manually jams the door shut with a towel or a noisy object so she will hear if it is opened, if she feels a room isn’t secure enough.
“I have definitely stayed in dangerous areas, but usually if I go to a bad area, it’s cheap enough that I can stay at a reasonably clean and safe hotel,” said Fiona Andrews. “But in terms of privacy, I don’t particularly care if people see me as long as they don’t actually try to physically harm me. As a woman traveling alone, I have no expectation of privacy.”
Giangiulio said that he recommends that all guests deadbolt their doors, be aware of their surroundings, and if they see something, they should say something. Plus, he stresses that people be aware of what they post on social media.
“People take pictures of themselves in the hotel, of what they’re doing and where they’re eating, and if you’re a disgruntled spouse or someone looking for a target, this can make you easy prey,” he said.
So what standard will hotels be held to when it comes to expectation of privacy in the future, especially with new advents in technology?
Goldfarb said that case decisions such as these will continue to change and chip away at court precedents involving the expectation of privacy, much more frequently and incrementally than a new statute would.
“The expectation of privacy has been around for a very long time,” said Goldfarb. “However, very often, the law doesn’t keep up with technology.”