Feature

Fragile

When Jillian Groh checked in to the downtown Westin Hotel one cold night almost seven years ago, everything felt certain. Then things changed forever.

October 2013

One of the first things George, Jill’s brother, did when he heard about the accident was call the Westin. He wanted to know what had transpired at the hotel. He had one question in particular: “Why would someone kick drunk kids out into the street at 3 a.m.?”

George eventually spoke to the Westin’s security director, who said a police officer had escorted his sister and her friends out of the hotel. George then spoke to the officer. Denver Police sergeant Bryan O’Neill was shocked when George explained what had happened to his sister. O’Neill recounted being called to the hotel that night to take care of a drunk girl who had fallen in the lobby, but he was surprised to hear the girl had climbed into a car. He asked George to describe his sister’s appearance. When he heard the description, his mind flashed to a group of kids in the lobby, and the man who asked him, “Are you here for us?” O’Neill told George he played no part in evicting George’s sister. O’Neill would later say in a deposition that no one from the Westin asked him to remove the Groh group, and that Denver Police logs indicate nothing about an eviction at the Westin in the early hours of March 4, 2007. 

A few days after the crash, an attorney showed up at the Westin. Though he wasn’t there on behalf of the Grohs, the lawyer said someone who had been in an accident after leaving the hotel had retained him as counsel. He requested certain security tapes from that March night be preserved. This visit—and George’s phone call—indicated to Westin personnel that litigation against the hotel was looming. In response, Westin management reviewed security logs from that evening and traded emails about what had happened. Days after the accident, the general manager of the Westin, Thomas Curley, relayed to a company lawyer what he had learned: “We received a phone call from the brother of the registered guest stating that he was going to seek legal action. He was asking why we evicted the party and why we put seven intoxicated people in a car. Our security director spoke with him and informed him that Denver Police were involved and that as far as we knew there was no indication of intoxication during the eviction process.”

George called Janelle’s brother-in-law, a well-connected real estate developer in Portland, Oregon, hoping he could recommend a good lawyer. The Grohs eventually got in touch with Alan Shafner, an attorney who, at the time, worked at Fogel, Keating, Wagner, Polidori & Shafner, P.C. in Denver. The firm held a meeting about whether to take the Groh case, and though many of the partners were undecided, Shafner advocated for it. The firm agreed to work the case on contingency. “You get a hunch and you think things will turn out,” Shafner says. “I thought the facts would turn into a good case.” 

 

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