Wassell v. Adams
865 F.2d 849 (7th Cir. 1989)

  • Wassell was staying in a cheap hotel in a bad neighborhood. There was a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Wassell opened the door and was attacked.
    • There was no telephone in the room, there was no security guard, and no one responded to her cries for help.
    • In the seven years prior to the attack there had been three other attacks on people staying at the hotel.
  • Wassell sued the owner of the hotel, Adams, for negligence.
    • Wassell argued that Adams had a duty to warn and take actions to protect hotel guests from attacks.
    • Wassell also argued that she was from a small town and wasn’t ‘hardened’ into thinking that every knock that the door could be an attacker.
  • The Trial Court found that Adams had been negligent, and that negligence was a proximate cause of the attack, but that Wassell was mostly to blame. Wassell appealed.
    • The jury found that Adams was 3% at fault, and Wassell was 97% at fault.
      • The jury felt that Wassell shouldn’t have opened her door to strangers in the middle of the night.
    • The jury assessed that the damages were $850k, but 3% of $850k was only $25k.
      • This is the doctrine of comparative fault.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court looked not only at who was at fault, but also the relative cost to avoid.
      • Wassell could have prevented the attack by simply not opening the door. Adams could only have prevented the attack by spending lots of money on security guards and alarms.
      • It would have cost Adams approximately $20k a year to hire a night security guard.
    • The Court found that a verbal warning would not have avoided the attack since Wassell testified that she thought the knock at the door was her fiancée. Also, it should be obvious to people to not open the door to strangers in the middle of the night.
      • “It’s not Adams responsibility to tell guests not to stick their fingers in the electrical outlets either.”
    • The Court felt that the 3% number was low, but that they didn’t have the authority to reverse a jury decision unless it was against the clear weight of the evidence, and it wasn’t.