December 15, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
During her vacation in Hawaii, Vivian, a French tourist, decided that on her way home to the south of France, she would visit Malibu. She went online in late February and booked a hotel and shuttle service from LAX in order to spend two days enjoying the California sunshine.
Checking in, Vivian presented her debit card. Two days later, she checked out and took another shuttle for her ride to LAX, looking forward to returning home. But it wouldn’t be a smooth trip.
“When the shuttle driver ran the card, the charge was rejected! So back to the hotel we went,” she told You and the Law.
“I have traveled all over the world with just this one debit card, but now, all access to money was frozen, and there was more than enough for the hotel stay in the account. The hotel staff were helpful, and actually paid the driver to take me to LAX because I had no cash, but that was just the beginning of my nightmare,” Vivian explained.
Upon arrival in Paris, she proceeded to the railroad office to buy a ticket. Again, her card did not work, and to make matters worse, she had no cash at all, no US dollars, no euros, nothing. “I never felt a need to have cash or another bank or credit card,” she reasoned.
One big mistake
“That is one big mistake,” San Francisco-based travel attorney Alex Anolik pointed out.
“A debit card is fine, but always have a credit card, or alternative card, just to get you by when you are traveling. It is dangerous not to have a reasonable amount of cash with you anywhere you go in the world,” he added.
Stranded and it’s snowing
Unable to reach anyone by phone and afraid of being arrested for trying to take a train ride with no ticket — with the station closing — she waked out into a snowy Paris night wearing only lightweight clothing. It was well after midnight when Vivian — who admitted to having a mental health history — walked into a Paris hospital “in a really bad state.”
“I just asked if I could spend the night, as I had nowhere else to go,” she said.
Evidently, she was in a much worse “state” that she thought, as they placed her in a mental ward for two days before family arrived.
She blames the hotel for causing this horrible experience and would like to sue them. But what actually happened?
Card blocking is extremely common
“Your reader’s experience isn’t that rare,” Anolik explained. “Hotels commonly place a hold on funds in debit accounts, known as card blocking, preventing a guest’s departure without paying, often including extra days, damage to property, phone calls, incidentals and on it goes.
“Vivian’s debit card balance was clearly less than what the hotel had blocked, freezing it. The hotel is responsible for their error in not releasing her card, and the front desk staff had to suspect that they were the cause of what occurred the instant she was returned to the hotel,” he pointed out.
“By failing to remove the hold on her card, at the least, it’s negligence — and you could even go further and say that it amounted to willfully, intentionally keeping the charge on her card, which can’t be justified under any circumstances.
“This would have been so easy, after verifying no property damage, or other outstanding charges. So they set in motion events which led to her misery, and she can indeed use the Malibu small claims court, where the limit is $10,000 — and she does not need to return to California — unless the hotel offers something reasonable,” he said.
“So the argument she would make in a settlement demand letter — or later in small claims court if the hotel ignored her — might read:
“I was an international traveler, handed over my card in good faith, paid my bill, and did not have any extra money. You made my card completely unuseable. It is foreseeable these types of problems would arise, all because of your refusal to take a moment to just clear my card.
“Under the principles of negligence law, based on this wrongful conduct, I am asking the court for a judgment in the amount of $XXX.”
An inexpensive remedy to try
“I try to teach this as a remedy that is very inexpensive and doesn’t need an attorney. But the hotel will likely do nothing until she files suit.
“So the filing fee is well worth it. In her letter, she should state that I can sue, but am asking for $XXXX and always write Settlement Negotiation Document on the letter.
“If it were me, I’d take $3,000 as settlement in full,” America’s foremost — and practical — travel attorney concluded.
Anolik has a terrific website at www.travellaw.com.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.