Lawsuit filed against Omni Houston Hotel claims employee's drowning during Harvey was preventable

By Brittany Taylor - Digital News Editor

HOUSTON - A lawsuit was filed Monday against the Omni Houston Hotel after an employee of the hotel drowned during Hurricane Harvey.

The family of the employee filed the lawsuit, which claims that 48-year-old Jill Renick's death was preventable.

Renick's body was found in the ceiling of the basement near a set of elevators in the hotel. The lawsuit claims Renick died due to the hotel's negligence and conscious disregard for its guests.

Investigators had been searching for Renick since Aug. 27, when she disappeared during an evacuation of the building as floodwaters were quickly rising.

She called a co-worker, saying she was stuck in a service elevator that was filling with floodwaters. Employees could not find her, nor raise the elevator, due to the rising water and a power outage.

The Houston Police Department Dive Team made several attempts to find her after Aug. 27, but were unsuccessful due to the severe flooding. Renick's body was recovered Sept. 7.

“Jill’s death was horrific and easily preventable,” said the family’s lawyer Rob Crain, of Crain Lewis Brogdon LLP. “This hotel has a history of flooding, as it sits in a low-lying area next to a river.”

Crain said the hotel was irresponsible for leaving its elevators operating and knew its basement was flooding the morning of the storm on Aug. 27.

The lawsuit claims the hotel is well-aware it's prone to flooding, being located near the Buffalo Bayou. Surveillance video provided by Omni Hotels to Renick's family shows that the basement begun to flood as early as 4:46 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

The suit also claims people -- including a man wearing rain boots and a yellow rain slicker who was holding a communication radio -- were in the basement.

“Not only was there ample warning of heavy rain accompanying Hurricane Harvey, the Omni knew their basement was flooding that morning. It is unconscionable to leave the elevators operating, to not barricade around the elevators to prevent their use and to not warn Jill and the other guests of this life-threatening danger. In a flood, elevators are death traps,” Crain said.

The lawsuit claims Renick was called by the front desk "to come downstairs." The hotel has not provided information about what happened after Renick arrived downstairs, according to the lawsuit.

The suit states that Renick used her cellphone to call the hotel's front desk and pleaded for help after she was trapped inside a flooding elevator. The hotel did not say why Renick had been in the service elevator, which did not provide access to her hotel room on the third floor, according to the lawsuit.

Renick managed to partially open the elevator doors and exit into the flooding basement, according to the lawsuit. Guests on the first floor reported hearing Renick screaming for help and beating on the inside of the elevator, according to the lawsuit.

Surveillance video shows that Renick attempted to escape and look for a way out of the basement, but could not escape the floodwaters and drowned, according to the lawsuit.

“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. The Omni Hotel failed Jill and its guests. It’s just inexcusable,” Crain said.

The civil suit also cites the hotel’s prior known issues with flooding.

A representative for the Omni Hotel said they could not comment on pending litigations.

The hotel is scheduled to re-open November.

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