When Jillian Groh checked in to the downtown Westin Hotel one cold night almost seven years ago, everything felt certain. Then things changed forever.
The Grohs lost their first appeal. The 2-1 ruling upheld the District Court judge’s decision to grant the Westin summary judgment. Perhaps searching for a silver lining, Shafner was encouraged by the lengthy dissent written by one of the Court of Appeals justices. It was clear the judge believed the case contained questions for a jury. “I would hold that where an innkeeper evicts a guest under circumstances potentially creating an imminent risk to the guest, because of either the guest’s condition or the environment into which the guest has been evicted—or, as here, the two in combination—the jury must decide whether the eviction was reasonable.”
In the time since the Groh case was first filed, Shafner had opened his own firm not far from the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center where Jill used to work. Shafner had amassed enough paperwork—research, depositions, motions, expert opinions, and relevant cases—to fill a room in his office and part of a room at home. Though it was a long shot, the next legal step was to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider. Cases are rarely overturned in this manner. Nevertheless, Shafner filed the paperwork.
Interestingly, in the time it had taken the appeals to progress, a judge announced his retirement. The justice was a member of the three-judge panel that first considered the Grohs’ appeal. When Shafner’s motion to reconsider showed up on the docket, the court assigned a new judge to the case. Shafner viewed the swap as fortuitous: Perhaps this new judge would side with the Grohs.
The news came in late March 2013, 24 days after the sixth anniversary of Jill’s accident. The Court of Appeals reversed its decision; this time, it was 2-1 in favor of the Grohs. The judges saw the case as potentially having far-reaching implications in Colorado and beyond. The majority opinion stated: “This personal injury action presents an issue of first impression in Colorado: whether a hotel’s duty of care to a guest requires that, in lawfully evicting the guest, the hotel act reasonably. We conclude that a hotel must evict a guest in a reasonable manner, which precludes ejecting a guest into foreseeably dangerous circumstances resulting from either the guest’s condition or the environment. We further conclude that here a reasonable jury could find a breach of this duty on the present record.”
The dissenting judge cautioned against the potential ripples of the decision. “This was an undeniably tragic case. The majority’s imposition of a duty on the Westin under the facts of this case, however, is a great expansion of tort duty in Colorado. Hotels will now have an expanded duty to protect evicted guests, and I fail to see any distinction in the majority’s reasoning which will prohibit such a duty from being expanded to any business owner.”
Long ago, after their first defeat in court, Bill told Janelle to no longer count on anything from the legal system. But it had been so long since they’d heard good news it was hard not to be excited. They had waited six years for this moment. “We’re on cloud nine,” Janelle said. That evening, the Grohs invited their daughter, Jennifer, and her two-year-old son, Brady, over for a family dinner. Janelle planned to cook her signature spaghetti and meatballs, which she’s made for the past 40 years. Jill slept well that night.
The Grohs’ victory doesn’t ensure a straight shot to a trial; it’s one more step in a seemingly endless ladder of appeals. “The first few years we waited,” Bill says. “Then all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, we’re being told we’re going to court. And now we have to wait again.” About a month after losing the Court of Appeals decision, the Westin filed paperwork asking the Colorado Supreme Court to hear the case. (The court’s decision was still pending at press time.) The Westin’s lawyer, Richard Waltz of the Denver-based Waltz Law Firm, declined to speak about the case, saying, “I think it would be inappropriate for any lawyer to comment on a case before the Supreme Court.” Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide declined to comment.
Trying to predict the movement of the state’s highest court is a fruitless endeavor. But the Groh case might pose a legal question that interests the justices, particularly because of the way the Court of Appeals framed its decision as breaking new legal ground in Colorado. The odds, however, are against the Colorado Supreme Court taking any case—it only hears about one out of every 10 requests.
If the court does decide to hear Groh v. Westin, it could be months before arguments are presented and then several months more before a decision. Conversely, if the court doesn’t take the case, the whole thing would head back to the District Court level and be scheduled for trial—which could take at least six months and more likely a year. If that happens, three years of appeals will have been lost to not-so-summary judgment, only for things to return to where they were in 2010.
Even if the case goes to trial (the Westin could attempt to settle), and even if a jury finds the Westin is at least partly at fault for what happened (a jury could assign the hotel a percentage of the blame), that decision could be appealed. The situation is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a tale that centers on a civil lawsuit that has stretched on for generations. Dickens’ novel is a commentary on the failure of the legal system. The difference is that the Bleak House case is about material possessions and money. The Groh case is about a woman’s life.
The Grohs can’t forget the way Westin employees treated their daughter and her friends that night. Part of them, though, needs to move on, and in some ways they have; they are too consumed with caring for their daughter to closely follow a convoluted legal battle. And, yet, it is the very same legal system that may offer the Grohs their best chance of closure. People have long found a sense of finality in being heard by a jury of peers, and Bill and Janelle believe they could find this, too. But they have already lost six years to the courts—and could easily lose more.