Hoteliers Need to Know What's Cooking

The methamphetamine problem facing the country has no boundaries and has many innocent victims, including hoteliers who face mounting property damage, clean-up costs, increased workers' compensation claims and potential liability to guests from the use of motel rooms as meth labs.

News reports from across the country attest to the issue on a near-daily basis. A recent report from Pascagoula, MS is typical: Police arrested three men with intent to distribute meth after 24.5 grams of the drug were discovered in a motel room the men had rented. Hotel management called police after a housekeeper found paraphenalia used in production of the drug.

Meth production can be on a large or small scale. While most meth today is imported to the United States for sale, small-scale meth production is still a widespread phenomenon. Meth cooks can set up an operation and manufacture the drug in as little as 12 hours. Meth producers use hotel rooms because they can produce their drugs, then leave the mess for others to handle.

The byproducts of meth production come in two forms: the gas residue produced from cooking the meth, which seeps throughout the structure and sticks to all surfaces; and the wastewater, which is poured into sinks, down toilets or onto the ground. Exposure to meth residue is toxic and can cause long-term health effects.

Generally, innkeepers have the duty to exercise reasonable care to protect guests from harm. Liability will usually only result when a guest suffers harm that was reasonably “foreseeable.” Essentially, if the innkeeper had prior warning of harmful activity, or knew or should have known of the activity, then liability could result. This means that the innkeeper should be watchful of what is happening on and around hotel premises.

Innkeepers with long-term rentals should be especially wary of the potential for drug labs on site, and should understand the warning signs of a meth lab. Reasonable precautions to prevent this type of activity will help guard against not only the physical property damage, but also the liability to guests and employees who may be exposed to the meth residue.

Hoteliers need to be aware of the red flags that may signal meth production:

  • Chemical containers or empty packages of cold medicines;

  • Glass containers (such as jugs, jars or beakers) with residue in them left in a room;

  • Rooms with blocked vents;

  • Discarded needles;

  • Items out of place for no reason;

  • Guests who pay in cash, have no photo identification, appear to be using drugs and/or have a local address;

  • Vans or trucks with chemical containers, like ammonia;

  • Guests who are moving bulky or boxed items into a room;

  • Requests for specific out-of-the-way rooms;

  • Water running in rooms for a long time;

  • The odor of chloroform, ammonia, cat urine, heavy perfume or other chemicals;

  • Refusal of maid service; and

  • Consistent requests for roomservice to be left outside the door.

Awareness about the warning signs of a meth lab and training employees to recognize these signs are the initial steps toward a meth-prevention program on your property. Showing that you took reasonable steps to detect criminal activity can reduce liability to guests on your property.


Jean Ohman Back is an attorney in the Portland office of regional law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. Back co-leads the firm's hospitality law group and can be reached at (503) 796-2960, or jback@schwabe.com. This information provided is general and educational and not legal advice. For additional information go to www.hospitalitylawyer.com.

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