He says he didn’t smoke in his room, but Marriott says he did – who’s right?

Joe Wilson says he didn’t smoke at the Courtyard Boston Lowell. The hotel says he did. Or, to be exact, that he left the room smelling like cigarette smoke.

The Courtyard charged Wilson a $250 cleaning fee, and he doesn’t think he should pay. Should I get involved in this dust-up?

Yes, it’s yet another he said/he said, and this one may be hard to resolve. Impossible, even. I’m not sure if I completely believe either side.

It all started on the night of Jan. 22, when Wilson and three friends checked into the property. They paid cash, but Wilson offered his credit card for incidentals.

“On Monday I checked my credit account and saw that I had been charged $250 from the hotel without any contact regarding the situation,” he reports. “No issues had occurred that night and overall, I figured our stay at the hotel had been fairly pleasant.”

He asked a hotel representative about the charge and was told that “there was picture evidence taken by the maids that was proof we had smoked inside the room,” he says. “When I received the pictures, they were of a non-smoked broken cigarette on the counter, a cup containing a non-smoked cigarette that had gotten wet and dry, unrolled tobacco.”

He adds,

I was told by the hotel manager that a non-smoked cigarette left in the room was evidence that smoking had gone on in the room, but this cannot be correct because I was told by the same manager that cigarettes were allowed in the building but could not be smoked.

I have been refused a refund for this fee and I think that is wrong and I am being targeted by the hotel because I am a college student.

I also looked over all the hotel smoking policy rules and the form that I signed at check-in, and nothing states that full, non-smoked cigarettes and an empty pack is evidence.

I think we can all agree that an unsmoked cigarette is circumstantial evidence, at best. So I asked Wilson to show me the paper trail. I wondered what the hotel had to say for itself.

I was curious to see the company’s response. Here are two emails, part of the paper trail between Wilson and the hotel, that offer the hotel’s perspective:

Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me this afternoon. Per your request here are the 2 pictures that were taken from your room upon departure.

I would also like to add, as discussed, the room smelled heavily of smoke. To this point we were unable to rent room 209 the night of 1/23/16.

This was followed by a call to the hotel, which generated several more written responses, including this one:

I do apologize that it seems that we are at an impasse with regards to the smoking and the subsequent charge that occurred during your stay with us.

As you advised me this afternoon, you are seeking legal counsel. As a result of your desire to pursue this line of action I ask that you do not personally contact me or anyone at our hotel regarding this dispute. This will prevent any misinformation/confusion and allow our counsels to communicate in a productive 3rd party manner.

Should you feel the need to return to the hotel to dispute this matter further, you will be politely asked to leave while legal proceedings are started. Should you choose to remain and/or become hostel [sic] in any way, the Lowell Police will be called and you escorted off the property.

Thank you for staying with us as we valued your choice to stay with us.

And, finally, he received this reply from a Marriott corporate liaison:

We are aware that Mr. Lessard, the General Manager of the Courtyard Boston Lowell, sent you an e-mail showing a smoked cigarette in a Styrofoam cup found in your room as well as the broken unsmoked cigarette to which you referred. In this case, we consider the hotel’s charges justified and we support their decision to impose the cleaning fee.

Hmm. So the room allegedly smelled of smoke and the staff found unsmoked cigarettes in room. Or were they smoked? I would almost say that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but the staff didn’t catch anyone in the act of smoking.

In Wilson’s favor: The hotel did not act in good faith by arbitrarily billing his credit card $250. The right thing to do would have been to ask him about the smell before he checked out and received his approval for the cleaning charge. If the room smelled of cigarette smoke, and the staff had a chance to take pictures of the cigarettes, then they would have had an opportunity to ask him about his activities prior to checkout.

I have my own bias on a case like this. I don’t smoke and I don’t believe anyone should smoke in a hotel. Allowing cigarettes on the property is about as smart as allowing guests with loaded firearms — nothing will happen, probably. But why take chances?

I think Marriott mishandled this case, first by blindsiding Wilson with a $250 late charge on his credit card, then by sending him a series of increasingly firm emails. He might have a valid credit card dispute here.

At the same time, I suspect one of Wilson’s friends lit up while they were staying there. Maybe they opened the window and smoked “outside” but whatever happened, I’m pretty sure the room smelled bad when they left. So I can’t blame Marriott for pushing its case.

I’ve asked the company to review this case one more time, but I’m not sure how hard I should push.

Should I advocate for Joe Wilson?

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