Tourist sues SF hotel after it gave his luggage away to alleged criminal

Stephanie Sierra Image
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
SF hotel sued after it gave guest's luggage to alleged criminal
San Francisco tourist sued Marriot Marquis for giving luggage to alleged criminal, won but lost during an appeal due to "outdated" law.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The ABC7 News I-Team is investigating what attorneys argue is a loophole in the law that allows hotels across the state to avoid paying actual damages to guests.

Imagine you booked a hotel, but the hotel accidentally gave all your stuff away to an alleged criminal without checking for any valid ID. It happened in San Francisco to Bob Sabouni.

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According to the court judgment, Sabouni lost $8,390.88 of his belongings. He sued the San Francisco Marriott Marquis and won. In a surprise move, Marriott successfully appealed the case. But, the state Superior Court Judge overseeing the case says it was done so unfairly.

Here's how it happened.

Bob's story

What was supposed to be a post-lockdown summer getaway to San Francisco turned into a legal nightmare for Bob Sabouni.

In June of 2021, Sabouni and his friends checked into the San Francisco Marriott Marquis before heading to a Giants game. Sabouni says his room wasn't ready so the hotel offered to hold his bags.

"Then we went onto the game and we had a great time. Giants won!" Sabouni said.

But later that night, Sabouni came back to a big loss.

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"Everyone's stuff was there, except mine," he said.

Sabouni says his luggage - which included a Briggs & Riley rollaway bag, a Tumi leather backpack, an iPad Pro, a MacBook Pro, a 4TB hard drive with his social security number and seven years of tax documents - was nowhere to be found.

"The next morning I spoke to the manager who said they were looking into it and found out they had given my stuff to somebody else," Sabouni said.

According to the court judgment, hotel surveillance footage shows later that afternoon a man walked into the Marriott claiming he checked his bag but lost his claim check.

"Remarkably the Marriott let the guy walk into the back room, he pointed at my bags and said those are mine... the guy said, is there any way you can prove it? Do you have tickets? Do you have ID? And the guy said I have none of that, but just mentioned there's a computer in that bag." Sabouni said.

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"Sure enough there was and they just handed my stuff over."

Sabouni says in the weeks that followed the hotel was unwilling to compensate him for his losses unless he provided receipts for every item. Frustrated with the process, Sabouni later sued Marriott in small claims court and won.

"The judge awarded us $5,000 which was nowhere near the almost $9,000 that I'd lost, but you know I was satisfied," Sabouni said.

But, the story doesn't end there.

Legal battle

Marriott then appealed the case on the grounds of a law enacted in 1872 - also known as the Inn Keeper's statute - that limits a hotel's liability for guests' belongings to $1,000. Marriott won the appeal, but not fairly according to San Francisco Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ross who wrote:

"This is one of the rare instances where the law does not allow the court to achieve the equitable result."

According to the court judgment, Ross highlighted the fact the law is outdated, saying in part this statute "has not been revised to accord with the current value of luggage, clothing, and most notably computer equipment and its data."

"Prices have gone up enormously since this law was first enacted," said Jim Wilcox, an economics professor at UC Berkeley's School of Business.

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Wilcox said prices of goods and services have gone up 20 to 25 times since this law was first enacted in 1872. Yet, in 2022, hotels in California are liable for items up to $1,000 - at maximum.

"Compared to when the law was first enacted, $1,000 then would be the equivalent in real purchasing power terms would require a ceiling of about $25,000," Wilcox said.

Judge Ross wrote in the court judgment: "One might expect Marriott to recognize the aberration and in the interest of customer relations, to pay the judgment. Instead, Marriot appealed."

The ABC7 News I-Team reached out to the Marriott for an on-camera interview, but hotel management declined to speak and give any comment.

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Sabouni valued his stolen items to be worth nearly $8,400. But according to Marriott's trial brief, the hotel was only legally liable for $500, due to this statute.

"It needs to modernize with the times, while the physical computer might be worth x dollars, what's on there is worth a lot more," said Relani Belous, founder of the Belous Law Firm. "You have an industry that has a get out of jail free card."

The Inn Keeper's Statute hasn't been amended in 42 years - leaving consumers like Sabouni paying the price.

"For me, it's a matter of holding them accountable for the safety of customers and not giving them this shield," said Sabouni.

After the appeal, the court ordered Marriott to pay Sabouni $1,553 for a mistake made by their own staff. Meanwhile, Sabouni told the I-Team accounting for his losses, he's spent well over $10,000 trying to fight this case.

The question now is - is it time for the law to change?