Hotel That Charged Guest $350 For A Negative Review Now Facing A Lawsuit From State Attorney General
from the when-has-this-EVER-worked? dept
The American Dream: own your own business… be your own boss… run your reputation into the ground… charge people’s credit cards $350 for negative reviews… get sued by the government. Welcome to Nashville, Indiana, home of the Abbey Inn, whose absentee ownership, lack of on-duty staff, and hidden clauses have led to a precipitous decline in brand health, along with the opportunity to defend itself against a lawsuit brought by the state’s attorney general.
It all started with hotel guest Katrina Walker’s disastrous stay at the Abbey Inn.
The hotel room wasn’t just dirty. It was “a nightmare,” the guest said.
The air smelled like sewage. Hair and dirt covered the bed sheets, as if the linens hadn’t been cleaned after the last guests had left the Abbey Inn & Suites room that Katrina Arthur and her husband were renting in Nashville, Ind in March 2016. The air conditioner and shower in the room didn’t work right, either, Arthur told WRTV.
“We were just wanting to get away and have some alone time,” Arthur told the TV station. “It looked really pretty on the website.”
Walker left a negative review of Abbey Inn after an email from the hotel asked her to submit a review. This was followed by a (bogus) legal threat from someone who should definitely know better.
Attorney Andrew Szakaly, who owns the hotel, wrote a letter to Arthur on April 2, 2016 telling Arthur that her negative review included “false statements” that had caused “irreparable injury” to his business, according to Indiana’s attorney general.
If Arthur didn’t take down the negative review, Szakaly threatened to file a libel lawsuit against her, according to the attorney general’s office.
Andrew Szakaly isn’t just an attorney and the now-former owner of the Abbey Inn. At the point this legal threat occurred, Szakaly was also the attorney for the town of Nashville. At this point, he’s moved on to become the county’s chief deputy prosecutor. He’s also not willing to answer questions about the problems at Abbey Inn that occurred while he owned the business. He’s also nuked his own site, which had his phone number and email address. But it lives on at the Internet Archive, even if calls and emails are going unanswered.
He will likely have to provide some answers. After sending out the bogus legal threat, Szakaly billed Walker $350 for the negative review, citing a clause in Abbey Inn’s guest policy. Walker claims she never saw anything in the copy of the guest policy she received at the hotel. The clause also isn’t posted anywhere in the business where guests can view it. It can be found in archived snapshots of the Inn’s website — which has also been nuked following negative press coverage.
Now, Indiana’s state attorney general is taking the business to court. The complaint [PDF] (h/t Cyrus Farivar) lists dozens of things the Abbey Inn did wrong, on top of the $350 charge for “disparaging” an already-questionable hotel.
Abbey Inn Suites maintains an overnight phone number for times when an employee is not available on-site to address consumer issues, but signs in each guest room state a consumer must not call overnight phone number unless there is an emergency. The signs further state if a consumer calls the overnight phone number and there was not an emergency, Abbey Inn Suites will charge the consumer in the amount of $100.00.
During her stay, Ms. Arthur, experienced issues with a sewage smell in her room, issues with water pressure, problems with the air conditioner, and an unkempt room.
Ms. Arthur attempted to notify Abbey Inn Suites management of the issues, but there was no employee on site and her calls to the after-hours phone number went unanswered.
There was no employee at the front desk when Ms. Arthur checked out on March 13, 2016, to whom she could direct a complaint about the issues encountered during her stay.
This last part is especially important because it gives guests no other option but to “violate” the bogus clause in the guest policies that they never see [emphasis added]:
Guests agree that if guests find any problems with our accommodations and fail to provide us the opportunity to address those problems while the guest is with us, and/or refuses our exclusive remedy, but then disparages us in any public manner, we will then be entitled to charge their credit card an additional $350 damage. Should guest refuse to retract any such public statements legal action may be pursued.
The lack of staff makes it all but impossible for issues to be resolved before the guest leaves.
The attorney general accuses the business of violating state deceptive practices laws with its non-disparagement clause. The office seeks an injunction and fines of $5,000 per violation. As the complaint points out, the guest policy went far beyond discouraging negative reviews. It also prevented consumers from bringing grievances against the Inn.
The Policy also forces consumers to accept the Defendant’s final and binding “exclusive remedy” to resolve any situation or issue, regardless of what that remedy entails and whether it actually resolves the situation or issue to the consumer’s satisfaction.
The Policy not only attempted to limit negative online reviews, thus improperly shielding the Defendant from the consequences of providing consumers with a negative experience or unsatisfactory customer service during their stay, but would also prohibit a consumer from filing a consumer complaint with the Attorney General or Better Business Bureau, filing a lawsuit, or even a police report, as all could be considered a “disparagement”
in a “public manner.”
The Abbey Inn’s reputation is now destroyed, thanks to a clause inserted by the attorney/owner who also happens to hold a government job as a prosecutor. Hopefully, this all lands in the lap of Brown County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Szakaly.