The Caterer

Death duty

01 January 2000
Death duty

One minute, six-year-old Daniel Cummins was swimming happily in the pool at the Pentire Hotel in Newquay with his mother looking on. The next minute he was gone. Although there were about 20 people in the pool and a member of staff was present, no one realised the child was in distress. It was only when his mother raised the alarm that his body was found at the bottom of the pool. Daniel died despite attempts by staff to revive him.

"Someone came running out to the bar area and told us to call an ambulance because there was a little boy in trouble," says Michael Westmore, owner of the 80-bedroom Pentire.

The hotel pool had a number of safety measures in place, including a coded entry system, a record of people coming in and out, and signage around the pool area. Even with these measures, Westmore could be facing prosecution by the local health and safety office. The cloudiness of the water is in dispute because, combined with the number of people in the water, it made the child difficult to see.

The incident happened last August and staff at the hotel suffered a traumatic experience. Some employees who were directly involved with the incident have had counselling to help them over it.

"People talk about elaborate plans but it's one of those situations where it just happens and you get on with it. You are never ready for anything like that," says Westmore.

As well as ensuring the staff were coping with Daniel's death, Westmore also had to think about guests, many of whom cut short their stays.

"I can understand that. There was a cloud hanging over the hotel for a while," he adds.

Lost business

It wasn't just in the immediate aftermath of the incident that the hotel suffered, however. Westmore estimates he lost £30,000 of additional business when a coach party that was booked in for 10 days cancelled their holiday because they came from the same area as the boy.

This is an extreme and tragic case, but many hoteliers have to deal with a couple of deaths in their hotel, whether from natural or other causes, every year.

As a result, many provide their managers with written procedures on what to do if someone dies. Peter Stewart, a partner at solicitors Field, Fisher Waterhouse, argues that all hoteliers need to have set safety procedures in place to avoid prosecution.

"Hoteliers need to identify where risks are caused to their customers and what are the procedures to avoid those risks. An offence arises if a person has knowledge of a risk of someone suffering an injury," says Stewart.

In addition, criminal prosecution of companies and individuals within companies is an increasing risk. Companies can be prosecuted if a person who is part of the "directing will and mind" of that company is individually liable. This is termed "corporate manslaughter". For example, if a general manager was told by head office that meat was not to be carved on the customers' tables, and decided to ignore it, then the company could be liable if someone was injured. In addition, warns Stewart, the Law Commission has plans to make prosecution easier.

Forte hotels recently revised its guidance to managers on dealing with death, and produced a detailed plan telling them who to report to and what their priorities are. The procedure includes:

  • Isolating the body or area where it is.

  • Contacting the emergency services and assisting them.

  • Comforting the next of kin and helping them with any arrangements.

  • Discreet removal of the body.

Forte's managers then have to report the death to the regional director, the insurance company and the environmental health officer (EHO).

Reporting injuries

"Under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences) we have to report major injuries, but we report to the EHO regardless. It's a matter of being upfront with them," says David Osborn, health and safety manager for Forte UK.

Although Osborn has dealt with four deaths in his 11 years with Forte, he was not involved in the recent incident at the Queen's Hotel, Cheltenham, in December, when a student fell to his death from the roof at 3am.

"The first staff were aware of it was when someone ran in to say his friend had fallen off the roof and was injured on the pavement outside," says Tony Aspden, the hotel's general manager.

The night porter went outside, realised it was more serious, and wrapped a blanket around the man while he waited for the arrival of the emergency services.

"Because it was outside the hotel it was handed over to the police. Everyone here seemed to deal with it really well. We were all upset but no one seems traumatised," adds Aspden.

Arguably more traumatic for hotel staff than a fatal accident is dealing with a suicide. When the housekeeper at the Grand Hotel, Torquay, found the door of one of the bedrooms double-locked, she called in the duty manager, who holds a master key.

"They tried ringing and knocking," says Stephen Williams, the hotel director, but eventually the manager decided to open the door. He and the housekeeper found a body lying on the floor, and immediately contacted the emergency services. The man had committed suicide by taking cyanide pills. He had checked in the previous afternoon, got the last available room, and paid in cash because he had no credit cards. At 7pm he ordered a steak from room service, which was brought to him by a waiter 15 to 20 minutes later. The next morning they found a note saying he had enjoyed the steak and that he was sorry for the trouble.

Although the 120-bedroom Grand had a full house, all the guests were attending a conference, so the hotel management waited until they were in session to remove the body. An ambulance was brought close to the staff/goods entrance and the dead man was brought down from the room in the staff lift.

Staff directly involved with the incident did not undergo any counselling but were checked on an hourly basis. "The way to deal with it is to keep yourself busy and carry on," says Williams. "We're great believers that counselling causes more problems than it solves. People are amazingly tough. We do practical things, we don't want to live in a nappy society."

On average the Grand has to deal with one death a year, though usually from natural causes.

Hoteliers in some parts of the USA have fallen victim to an alarming trend of assisted suicides. Starting in June last year, bodies have been left in Michigan hotel bedrooms at the rate of roughly one every three weeks.

Back this side of the Atlantic, at the Pentire Hotel, Westmore is still waiting to hear if he will be prosecuted over the death of Daniel Cummins.

"It would be harsh if they did. They would have to put all other hotels in the dock, too, because our safety measures are better than anyone's. I've got 30 to 40 local hoteliers who will give evidence that they don't have the procedures we do. They were good enough when we did our risk assessment back in April or May," he says.

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