Pets vs. Service Animals

    By Janet Wright, Director, Risk Management, SUITELIFE® Underwriting Managers

    Protecting Your Business and Creating an Enjoyable Experience for All

    For so many of us, our pets are indeed part of the family. For some people with disabilities, their pets are more than just part of the family—they are service animals who enable them to live more independently and to enjoy life more fully.

    With many hotels now allowing guests to bring pets along for their stays, the line between pets and service animals can often be blurred, causing confusion and putting hoteliers at risk. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which advises on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are often trained to assist people with walking, to pick up items for those who can’t, to alert a person with hearing loss or to protect a child with autism from wandering off, among other things.

    Hoteliers must offer accommodations to guests with service animals and offer the same accommodations as they would to any other guest. If they fail to do so, they could be found in violation of the ADA. Because hoteliers are limited in what they can request to determine whether an animal is a service animal or pet, hoteliers can find themselves at risk of turning away or charging extra fees for service animals. While avoidable, unfortunately these types of situations happen more frequently than they should.

    Just last year, the Quality Inn Mystic-Groton in Stonington, Conn., found this out the hard way when a guest was denied entry with a service animal to the hotel’s dining room to enjoy the complimentary breakfast. In May of 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut reached a settlement agreement with the hotel finding that it was not operating in compliance with the ADA. The ADA requires that all businesses, including hotels—in Connecticut, California or elsewhere across the country—allow individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals “in all areas of the place of public accommodation where members of the public, customers, patrons, or invitees are allowed to go.”

    In this case, the settlement called for the hotel to permit service animals in the areas defined above, including the dining room and awarded the guest $1,000. In addition, the settlement called for the hotel to post signage welcoming service animals and to implement and train staff on a service animal policy.

    There are ways that hoteliers can try to protect themselves against this kind of liability by carefully following ADA guidelines and ensuring that they are doing the best they can to offer the best experience to all their guests.

    Checking In Service Animals

    Check-in can be the hotel’s chance to make a first impression on the guest, and therefore it is imperative that reception is not only prepared to be friendly and accommodating but is also trained and knowledgeable in all rules and regulations, including those related to ADA compliance. Reviewing guidance provided by the Department of Justice is a good place to start when training employees to remain compliant with the ADA.

    The “We Welcome Service Animals” campaign launched by CHLA has also been a great tool for hoteliers and guests aimed at improving the guest experience for disabled persons traveling within California. The site provides useful tips to help hoteliers understand the guidance and ensure their guests, both two-legged and four-legged, are as comfortable as possible. Your insurance company, particularly if you work with an insurer that specializes in the hotel space, can be a resource as well. Insurers may be familiar with the space as they provide general liability insurance, which may protect the hotel against discrimination claims and more.

    When navigating the world of service animals versus pets, hoteliers should consider drafting and posting very clear and transparent communications. Hoteliers should also consider having their pet policies, including whether they allow emotional support animals (ESA), clearly outlined on their website and anywhere else that they share information. Similarly, within the pet policy hotel owners may want to outline that the hotel provides accommodations for service animals in compliance with the ADA. Additionally, they might want to consider clear signage in the hotel itself stating that service animals are welcome. As in most any situation, a lack of clear communication could lead to misinformation that could possibly put the hotel at risk and maybe even drive away potential business.

    Without regular staff training, guidance reviewed by staff on the first day of the job can be forgotten. Hoteliers looking to ensure all their guests have an enjoyable and memorable stay should strongly consider having a written policy regarding service animals on hand and ensure their staff is well-trained in what questions they are able to ask pertaining to service animals, as well as the rights and obligations for both the guest and hotel under the ADA. With proper planning and education, hoteliers should be confident they are doing the best they can to provide a superior experience to all their guests.

    The information contained in this material is for information purposes only. This material should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to any particular circumstances. Appropriate steps to manage any of the risks described herein will vary depending on particular circumstances. This material should be considered in addition to all other relevant information, including the advice of professional advisors and the requirements of any applicable policy of insurance.

    Janet Wright is director of risk management for SUITELIFE Underwriting Managers, LLC, a series of RSG Underwriting Managers, LLC. SUITELIFE is a Delaware Series limited liability company and a subsidiary of Ryan Specialty Group, LLC, specializing in underwriting management and other services for insurance products distributed through agents and brokers. Some products may not be available in all states or may be available only from surplus lines insurers. In California: RSG Insurance Services, LLC License #0E50879. © 2020 Ryan Specialty Group, LLC.