THLA members often contact us with questions about how to handle items that are found on the hotel property. This article addresses the legal status of found property, and offers some guidance on what lodging properties should do with found property.
“Found property” refers to items belonging to a guest, found by a hotel staff member. Clearly, where the true owner of the found item is known, the hotel should make every attempt to contact the guest and reunite the guest with the item. Not only does this make sense legally, but it is also the right thing to do for the guest. However, when the hotel does not know who the true owner of an item is, the found property often ends up in a “lost and found” bin, awaiting a claim of ownership by its true owner.
In Texas, true ownership of found property is not established by statute, but rather by common law. “Common law” is the law as interpreted by the court systems over many decades (if not centuries) of hearing legal cases. Common law doctrines hold that the finder of lost property has good title against anyone but the true owner. This means that the finder can usually assert legal ownership of the property, but if the item’s true owner comes forward with a claim to the property, the finder must release the property to the true owner.
Additionally, Texas has a specific statute on point regarding property found at a hotel: Chapter 2155 of the Texas Occupations Code applies to property left by guests after they check out. Section 2155.053 places the risk of loss on the guest for damages to or loss of their property left behind after check out. It is important to note that these protections do not apply if a hotel acts negligently, and under Texas law, hotels owe their guests a high degree of care.
Handling Found Property
Because the owner of a lost item can reclaim the item at a later time, a hotel should use caution when dealing with found property. Clearly, a hotel will want to establish a retention period for found items before the hotel disposes of the property or auctions the property. If a hotel in possession of found property disposes of the property or sells the property, and the true owner attempts to regain possession of the item, the hotel will likely be liable for the value of the item.
THLA recommends that hotels:
- Establish a retention schedule period that makes sense for the hotel given the value of the items found, and takes into account the risk the hotel is willing to take if the true owner of the property asserts a claim to the item;
- While holding on to the item, the hotel should be sure to keep the item secure from theft or damage, as the hotel will be liable for the stolen, lost, or damaged property if the true owner asserts a claim to the item;
- After the established period of time (e.g. 6 months), a hotel could sell the item, donate the item, or dispose of the item as the hotel’s management deems necessary; and
- If a hotel takes possession of a particularly valuable item, the hotel would be well advised to ensure its insurance policy will cover loss or theft of the item, and the hotel should secure the item in the hotel’s vault.
For more information about found property, hotels may contact a THLA attorney at 512.474.2996.