History of Innkeeper’s Law A Brief Review of the Key Historical Legal Concepts of the Law of Innkeepers


This paper seeks to provide a brief history of some of the key concepts of innkeeper’s laws and as such there is no intent here to provide an exhaustive account of the history of innkeeper’s laws as this would require a much more robust study. The legal subjects affecting hoteliers in the year 2020 are multifaceted and each area has its own history and precedents. This essay is divided into three parts. The first part offers readers an abbreviated history of commercial lodging going back into antiquity and medieval England. This is important in order to help set the stage on why innkeeper’s laws were needed. The second part of the report focuses on the history of innkeeper’s laws which gained traction in Rome and then in post-Roman Britain and eventually migrated to the United States. The basic concept of the duty of care of guests and their possessions will be introduced to readers, a concept which still forms the backbone of innkeeper’s laws to this day. In the last section, several cases from the 1700’s to more recent times will be shared to provide some additional context of existing innkeeper’s laws.

Brief History of Innkeeping and the First Innkeeping Laws

Although it is not possible to determine a precise date when the first commercial lodging establishments appeared, the predecessor of future restaurants and inns, were likely the taverns in ancient Egypt that were popular places to socialize, drink, and eat, and perhaps even places to spend the night1. Visiting Greeks described in vivid details some these gathering places where much flocking took place along the Nile. The Egyptians were certainly the inventors of beer and were some of the first to cultivate wine as well

Contemporaries to the ancient Egyptians were the Babylonians and there we see the first written instance of innkeeper’s laws, albeit on the food and beverage side. In the Codes of Hammurabi circa 2,000 B.C., inscribed are regulations on the proper management of taverns and inns and strict penalties for the proper preparation of beer.

The popularity of these types of taverns and precursors to inns gained even more traction in Ancient Greece and in Homer’s The Odyssey we first learn in some detail the concept of the lesches (also referred to as leschai), which in Ionic Greek, describes a place where various types of merchants and other tradesmen relaxed and socialized. These places were akin to social clubs and also served as a resting place for travelers and poor people that needed shelter1. Although these were not inns per se, they were a prelude to future types of businesses which soon evolved into taverns that also provided lodging. Still, the concept of hospitality, irrespective of any commercial enterprise, was a deep-rooted concept in the culture of Ancient Greece. Philoxenia, in ancient Greek signifies acting as a “friend to a stranger” and this concept of being friendly and hosting of strangers was especially important culturally and persists to this day.3 As travel became more common even during the Hellenic Age, providing shelter to strangers in their own home was considered an honorable act and this concept is not foreign to us in modern times.

Having said that, commercial lodging establishments up across Ancient Greece as travel and commerce between city-states intensified. Pandokos Xenostasis was an inn where only guests found lodging, and the phatne or stathmos were dwellings where humans and animals slept in the same place3. Thus, it is in Greece that we may have seen the first commercial inns, but it was not until the Romans conquered much known world at the time that inns became commonplace. However, it is important to note that these establishments were mostly frequented by the lower classes and merchants, and rarely did upper classes or nobility frequent them unless they were on the road and an official imperial lodging was not available.

Overall, Inns and taverns had terrible reputations, and perhaps worst of all was that of the innkeeper. To put it mildly, the concept of a responsible duty of care did not come about for centuries later. Most Inns at the time were notoriously dirty and disease-prone, and furthermore dangerous places where one could either be mugged and killed4. As a result, it was in Rome’s bureaucratic world that we see some of the first laws specifically aimed at innkeepers that deal with the care of the guest or their goods. Roman law dictated that innkeepers could refuse to host whom they chose to with the practical reason being that they could be held liable to secure a guest’s possessions and if something happened to those possessions, the innkeeper would have to reimburse those possessions at twice the original value. Thus, innkeepers had to be weary of whom to host for the night as they could be victims of fraud themselves.

Although Ancient Greece and Rome get most of the credit to be forerunners of the inns of the middle ages in Europe, it is important to note that various types of inns were popping all over the world in Asia and the Middle East that predate some of the lodging in Rome

The Medieval English Inn and Beaubeck V. Waltham

Inns were common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. In the 1300s in Florence, Italy, for example, we find the first innkeeper’s guild. However, it was in Medieval England that we see the development of some of the first innkeeper’s laws that would eventually make their way across the Atlantic to us. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “inn” refers to “an establishment for the lodging and entertainment of travelers” and the lexicology is from the Middle English and Norse signifying a “dwelling” 6 These inns were commonly found by the side of the roads throughout the countryside, but also could be found in London. The closest thing we have in modern times to a medieval inn are bed and breakfast establishments. As previously established and it was also the case at the time in England, the primary reason for the establishment of inns was to provide shelter for the night for travelers traveling long distances by foot or horse and especially as travel conditions were difficult and dangerous, especially at night, where travelers risked their lives as they could be robbed and killed. Medieval inns were still comparatively humble establishments and certainly comfort and privacy were not the main priorities. Rather, shelter, warmth, food, and safety were the priorities. Travelers often had to share their rooms and beds with total strangers. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he describes with some delight the occurrences at the Tabard Inn which housed both humans and their animals on their journey.

The Tabard’s innkeeper, Herry Bailly, was described as a gracious host and his inn as an incredible gathering place for all kinds of people across social classes and although the inn itself no longer exists, the description of the inn is similar to other contemporary accounts of inns in Medieval England7. It is during these medieval times in England that we begin to see a clear distinction emerge between taverns and inns. Taverns emerged as establishments mostly for locals to drink and eat and rarely offered an overnight shelter and in fact, after a certain time of night turned out these guests into the street.

On the other hand, in English public houses, or inns, which evolved from private homes, were created specifically to shelter wary and vulnerable travelers and therefore it became understood that the duties of the innkeeper were vastly different than those of a tavern. It is precisely this understanding of the vital responsibility of the innkeeper that we see emerging the first laws in England which would form the pillars of innkeeper’s laws. This heavy burden of having to protect guests and their goods from dangers from the outside of the premises and within is what turned innkeeping into a public calling.

In 1345, William Beaubek brought a suit against John of Waltham, an innkeeper, with the complaint that his belongings were stolen from his room. The facts of the case were generally not in dispute and Beaubek did not recover his goods5. The importance of case was vital to the future of innkeeper’s laws because it helped establish a duty of care of the innkeeper for the guest’s goods when they are accepted by the innkeeper for safekeeping and they are aware of the location of the goods. The statement in the suit brought by Beaubeck which would resonate in the centuries to come is “”that every innkeeper is bound to answer to his guests for goods placed under his control.”  The case established a precedent for others to follow in the sense that the innkeeper can be held liable for the guest’s personal belonging when he accepts them into his care. Obviously “into his care” can have a number of meanings and this concept would be litigated throughout the years, but there a clear thread here from the year 1345 to the present whereas an innkeeper can be held liable for the loss of a guest’s items when they are placed in the hotel’s safe, for example.

It is in England and France in the 1750’s that we see the emergence of a new commercial lodging, the hotel, which was considered more sophisticated than an inn and provided more comfort and services8. The emergence of these types of accommodations which were being built in city centers as opposed to the side of the road or in small towns also differentiated them from the inns referenced in this essay thus far.

Inns and Hotels in the Americas and Early Innkeeper Court Cases

Some of the first inns in the pre-Revolutionary War period in the Americas were built in the New England and South Carolina areas and were quite similar to the ones in existence the country inns in Britain and were referenced as colonial inns6. Although the service and accommodations of these early colonial inns and taverns were sparce and uncomfortable, they improved rather quickly. Innkeepers were considered important leaders of their communities and this made sense since these inns and eventually hotels, were places where important people met and conducted their business.

Hotels soon emerged and were built in the 1760’s and 1770’s in New York, Boston, and other major cities. The industrial revolution both in United states saw an explosion of hotels and with this and increasing number of cases going to court especially in the 1800’s which reiterated some of the common law concepts regarding the duties of the innkeeper to guests and their property. In some of the cases as we shall see below, what constituted and inn, and innkeeper, and a hotel, were important to help settle negligence and even tax cases. Interestingly, US courts based a lot of their legal reasons as it related to innkeeper’s laws on English common law.

Three early cases worth mentioning here are Kisten V. Hildebrand, Howth V. Franklin, and Cromwell V. Stephens. These cases were important because they helped define some basic terminology related to our inns and hotels which were later cited by other cases in the future. In the Kisten V. Hildebrand case from 1848 which made it to the Kentucky Supreme Court, the innkeeper was sued for negligence for the possessions of the guest which were stolen8. The outcome of the actual case (was remanded to the lower court for retrial) is less important than some of the key concepts imparted by Chief Justice Marshall. In his opinion, Marshall begins by defining what an innkeeper was: “A common inn keeper is defined to be a person who makes it his business to entertain travelers and passengers and provide lodging and necessaries for them and their horses and attendants.”8 Marshall is unequivocal in his opinion that innkeepers are indeed liable for the loss of the guest possessions while in his direct care and that this indeed because the profession of innkeeping serves an important public function and therefore the duty of care is higher than that of other business owners. Similarly, in 1858 case of Howth v. Franklin9 which was at heart a negligence case where the plaintiff was suing for recover for damages of a stolen horse and some other possessions. In the case, the issue of what exactly constituted a person being an innkeeper was important to help determine if the innkeeper’s liability. The court in Texas defined an innkeeper as “An innkeeper is one who holds himself out to the public as engaged in the business of keeping a house for the lodging and entertainment of travelers and passengers, their horses and attendants, for reasonable compensation.” Judge Roberts went on to say that being classified as an innkeeper was a “matter of law” in the sense that if the owner of the establishment comported himself as an innkeeper and frequently accepted travelers to his establishment and made this fact known to the public, then in fact, he should be classified as an innkeeper9. Last, in the 1867 Cromwell V. Stephens Case10, at issue was whether a building should be classified as hotel or boarding house for tax purposes as the plaintiff did not want to pay the higher taxes associated with the purchases of the property if classified as a hotel. This afforded the court an opportunity to define at length what a hotel is and this definition is similar to the one previously provided earlier in the essay. The case was important as it set some parameters under the law of what constitutes a hotel versus other forms of lodging.

Selected Innkeeper’s Law Cases

In this last section, six historical cases involving inns and hotels were selected as they are often cited cases in the law and the issues are ones that hoteliers still come across in the 21st Century. The cases are arranged below in chronological order.

The first selected case is Elcox V. Hill11, a US Supreme Court Case from the year 1878. In the facts of the case, the plaintiff, Elcox, who was traveling with some jewelry, checked into the defendant’s hotel in Chicago. A room was not available at the time of check-in, and as he needed to go out to run some errands, decided to leave his two bags, one of which contained jewelry worth $6,300, in the hotel’s coat check area with the attendant. Later on, the plaintiff returned collect his two bags when his room was ready for check-in. The jewelry had been stolen. Elcox sued the innkeeper, Hill, and the jury in the district found in favor of the defendant, but the Appeals Court in Northern Illinois found in favor of the plaintiff. The Supreme Court ruled concurred with the original jury and overturned the decision in favor of the defendant11. On one hand, the court explained that if an innkeeper that knowingly accepts a guest’s valuables for safekeeping, then they would be rightfully be held liable for the loss of the items. However, in this case, the Court found that the plaintiff was negligent themselves because they did not choose to make use the hotel safe to store the jewelry as it was clearly noted on the registration form at the time of check-in. Furthermore, the hotel’s staff was not informed that the guest’s jewelry was inside the bags which were left at the coat check area. Thus, if the hotel did not know they were in possession of the valuables, they could not reasonably be held liable. Having worked in the hotel business for more than 25 years, I can definitely relate to this case. The hotel can not be help liable for these types of valuables when the guest should store them in the hotel safe.

In the case of Curtis V. Murphy12, a guest checked into the hotel for illegal purposes and engaged in prostitution. Prior to the illegal acts, the guest gave some money for safekeeping to the hotel’s desk clerk which was subsequently stolen. The guest sued the innkeeper to recover the value of the stolen money. The Court decided that ordinarily the guest would be entitled to recover the money from the hotel based on the duty of care afforded to guests by innkeepers, but in this case, since the guest registered under false pretenses and engaged in illegal conduct, they were therefore no longer entitled to the guest/innkeeper relationship and thus the guest was judged not to be entitled to recovering the money he gave the hotel for safekeeping.

In the Nebraska 1905 case of Clancy V. Burke13, a guest’s child was injured by an employee’s gun which discharged by accident. This was an important case in furtherance of to the concept that innkeepers owe guests a high level of care while they are on the premises of the hotel. The Court found that even though the injury was indeed an accident and that the child should not have been wandering about the hotel away from the parents, the hotel was still found to be liable as they owed the guest a higher level of safety13. This case was subsequently cited on numerous occasions in the future in innkeeper negligence cases.

The potential liability of a hotel in a case where the employee acts negligently was litigated in Lehnen V. E.J. Hines Co.14. In this horrifying case, as a result of some mishaps, a hotel employee insulted and physically assaulted a guest of a hotel in their room when they were under the mistaken belief that the guest was a trespasser and did not belong in the room14. Under normal circumstances, a hotel may not be held liable when their employee acts in gross negligence outside the scope of their duties, standard training, or normal job functions. However, in this seminal Kansas case, the Court did find the hotel liable for the employee’s grotesque conduct because at this time of the incident, the employee was acting on behalf of the hotel when they went up to the guest room to evict the supposed trespasser. Thus, although it is generally true that innkeeper is generally held liable for employee’s poor conduct such as theft or beating a guest up outside of the scope of their normal duties, the Lehnen V. E.J. Hines case demonstrates that there are instances clearly where Courts will hold the innkeeper liable for their team’s poor conduct.

In the 1915 US Supreme Court Case of Miller V. Strahl15, the safety of the guest and the innkeeper’s duty to ensure they are safe when they are under their case was the central matter. In this case, a guest was injured when they were evacuating a hotel that was on fire. The Court found that even though the hotel did not cause the fire per se and not negligent per for the fire occurring, the hotel was nonetheless liable for the injuries sustained by the guest because it was found they did not do everything they could to evacuate the guest safely without injury. In the case, apparently, two hours passed between the time the fire was discovered by a hotel employee and the time the guest awoke (on their own) and tried to evacuate the hotel15. The hotel’s duty of care especially towards guest safety is delved into by the Court and this case once more affirms the innkeeper’s quasi virtual sacred duty to the safety and well being of their guests. This case brings to mind all of the procedures a modern hotel has to follow (alarms, fire detectors, fire drills, speakers in guest hallways, automated calls to guest rooms, fire exit signs on the back of guest room doors, etc) in order to ensure the safety of their guests in case of a hotel fire.

The last case we will examine for this paper is the case of Hoffa V. United States. In the case, the renowned teamster’s union boss, Jimmy Hoffa, was confiding some illegal acts (the bribing of a juror among other illegal acts) he committed to his associate while in his guest room. It later turned out that this associate was an informant and Mr. Hoffa was arrested based on the evidence provided by the informant16. Mr. Hoffa contested the charges and demanded to be released under the contention that these 4th Amendment rights were violated. The 4th Amendment protects a person’s right to privacy in their home and prevents the government’s unreasonable search and seizure of their home or items in their home without probable cause or a legal warrant17. So, in most cases, a hotel guest room, which is considered the guests, home away from home, would protect a guest’s 4th Amendment right insofar as his privacy is concerned and the government would need to present a warrant in order to search the room and legally obtain said information from the guest. However, in this case, the Court ruled that at issue was not really Mr. Hoffa’s 4th Amendment and instead his poor decision and confide in someone that turned out to be a government informant. The Court visited the topic of guest privacy in the case and the 4th Amendment and the Supreme Court did affirm the guest room would constitute a valid substitute of a person’s home, thus respecting the guest’s privacy while they are in the guest room insofar as the government is concerned. Other cases deal with the reasonable access that innkeepers must have to the guest room during the guest stay while being mindful of their privacy, but this case demonstrates that if the guest is committing or confessing to illegal acts, that an argument against government intrusion could fall flat.


Innkeeper’s laws are varied as they are old. The subjects not covered in this report range from real estate law, discrimination laws, food and beverage statutes, and many, many more areas of the law. The seminal work by Dr. John H. Sherry in the Innkeeper’s Laws, then revised by his son, John E.H. Sherry provides a good introduction (up to 1981) to all of the different types of areas of the law which can affect a hospitality manager. Having said, the goal as stated previously was to provide a brief introduction and to focus mostly on the innkeeper’s duty of care which forms the foundation of law on this subject. In particular, understanding the innkeeper’s duties of care and when they do apply and when they do not, which may seem instinctive to a good hotelier, is worth understanding in more detail. In a way, there is a long straight line from Roman and Babylonian times to the Middle Ages and finally to the 21st Century where Courts (real-life) where this duty to care for strangers and take care of them is as relevant to day as it was over thousands of years ago. Some of the key concepts insofar as the law have of course evolved as hospitality products and services have become more varied and sophisticated, but at the root of it all, remains the fundamentals of the innkeeping taking care of people when they are away from home.