(TNS) - An employee of the Omni Houston Hotel who drowned in the hotel during Hurricane Harvey last year struggled for more than five minutes to escape rising floodwaters in the basement of the hotel, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the victim's family.
The family of Ella Jill Renick, 48, says she drowned "due to the hotel's gross negligence and conscious disregard for their guests," according to a news release announcing the case. The suit also names Otis Elevator as a defendant, citing the absence of flood sensors on the hotel's elevators.
The lawsuit was filed with the 44th Civil District Court in Dallas County. Omni, which is based in Dallas, could not immediately be reached for comment. At the time, Omni called Renick "our beloved associate," adding, "we are heartbroken and shaken by this development."
Using video provided by Omni, the news release details Renick's fight to escape as Hurricane Harvey, "the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history," sent water cascading into the Omni's basement on Aug. 27, 2017.
"Jill's death was horrific and easily preventable," said the family's lawyer Rob Crain of Crain Lewis Brogdon, LLP. He filed suit on behalf of Oleta Renick, the victim's mother. "This hotel has a history of flooding as it sits in a low-lying area next to a river."
"Not only was there ample warning of heavy rain accompanying Hurricane Harvey, the Omni knew their basement was flooding that morning," he said. "It is unconscionable ...to not warn Jill and the other guests of this life-threatening danger."
Crain told The Dallas Morning News that attorneys "have not received a response from Omni to the lawsuit."
"In the past, Omni has suggested they will attempt to invoke an arbitration agreement they required Jill and other potential employees to sign before they could be hired," he said, adding that arbitration would deny the family the right to a jury trial.
The suit is seeking "monetary relief over" $1 million but Crain said "the family wants a Dallas County jury to decide what is fair and reasonable for their claims."
The 11-story Omni Houston Hotel, with 378 guest rooms, was built in 1981 and rests adjacent to Buffalo Bayou.
Renick worked as the hotel's director of spa services in the 7,100-square-foot Mokara Spa. She and her dog Sweet Pea had spent the night in the hotel Aug. 26.
Throughout the night and into the morning of Aug. 27, the Omni Houston management "knew the Buffalo Bayou had exceeded its banks and was flooding hotel property," the suit said.
According to the suit, video footage from one camera provided by Omni to Renick's family shows that the basement had already begun to flood as early as 4:46 a.m. The suit details people working in the basement including a man in rain boots, yellow rain slicker and holding a communications radio. At 5:00:16 a.m., the basement floor is fully covered in water with debris floating with the current.
The suit says that at around 5:15 a.m., Renick was called by the front desk and told "to come downstairs." The suit claims, the hotel "has not provided an explanation as to what happened when Jill arrived downstairs."
Less than a half hour later, she was in the basement, in the service elevator.
At about 5:40 a.m., Renick used her cellphone to call the hotel's front desk and plead for help. Renick said she was trapped in the elevator and that water was coming in the elevator. "The hotel has provided no explanation as to why Renick would be in the service elevator," the suit said.
"Jill managed to open, at least partially, the elevator door and exit the elevator into the flooding basement," the lawsuit said. "Individuals on the first-floor report they could hear Jill screaming for help and beating on the inside of the elevator. At 5:44:29 AM, Jill is seen in the video coming from the area of the service elevator and toward the entrance to the Black Swan nightclub located in the basement, undoubtedly looking for a way out.
"Jill is seen again at 5:44:47 AM struggling against the flow of water and ambulating back in the direction of the service elevator. The video ends at 5:45:26 AM. Jill is not seen alive again. The evidence indicates Jill continues to search for oxygen. She has to get above the rising waters. She ultimately climbs above the ceiling tiles which are affixed to joist framing, but she cannot escape the floodwaters which eventually rise to the first floor of the hotel. She drowns. Hotel employees do not find Jill's body until Sept. 7, eleven days later."
"We can see in the video footage that Jill fought hard to find an exit. I simply cannot imagine the anguish and torment she experienced trying to find her way out," Crain said. "The Omni Hotel failed Jill and its guests. It's just inexcusable."
News reports show that in September 2013, May 2015 and October 2015, the Omni Houston Hotel experienced significant flooding, the release said. In the May 2015 flood, the hotel was forced to close for more than a month for extensive renovation as a result of the flood, the suit said.
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