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Judge Throws Out Suit Filed By Elisa Lam's Parents Against The Cecil Hotel

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A judge threw out a negligence suit filed by the parents of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old student who was found dead inside a water tank at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in 2013. L.A. Superior Court Judge Howard Halm found that the Cecil Hotel could not have foreseen the death of the 21-year-old Canadian tourist because it happened in an area where guests were not permitted, according to City News Service.

Lam went missing on Jan. 31, 2013, while visiting L.A. and staying at the Cecil Hotel, which has since rebranded as Stay on Main. Her body was discovered in a water tank on the hotel's roof on Feb. 19, 2013 after hotel guests complained of poor water pressure, and a maintenance man went up to the roof to inspect the tanks. Lam's death was eventually ruled an accident with bipolar disorder listed as a contributing factor, though no one's still entirely certain how Lam ended up in the tank.

In order for Lam to wind up in the tank of her own accord, she would have had to get onto the hotel roof, climb onto the platform that held the four tanks, climb a 10-foot ladder on the tank's side, push open the 20-pound lid and then either fall or drop into the tank. Hotel guests are not permitted onto the roof, and it is only accessible via one of the fire escapes or a door that sounds an alarm when opened unless a key card—one only a hotel employee would have—was used.

"In fact, the very nature of the water tank would make it unreasonable for [Lam] to assume that she was allowed to climb it and open the lid," Halm wrote in his nine-page decision.

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He also pointed out that to hotel management's knowledge, nothing like this concerning the tanks had ever occurred in the past.

Lam's parents, David and Yinna Lam, filed the suit in September 2013. Thomas Johnston, the Lams' lawyer, argued that Elisa Lam suffered from mental illness and might still be alive if the water tanks locked.

"They should have secured that water tank. This was an accident waiting to happen," he said.

In court documents, Santiago Lopez, who worked as a maintenance employee at the hotel since 2010, described how he discovered Lam's body. He testified that he knew who Lam was only because police were looking for her, and that he had helped officers by opening the doors of various rooms in the hotel as they conducted their investigation. He climbed up the side of the tank to investigate what was causing the low water pressure.

"I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately twelve inches from the top of the tank," he said.

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Police had checked the roof during their investigation, but did not think to check the tanks. Lopez said that he didn't notice anything wrong with the alarm that day, nor had he heard it go off at any point during Elisa Lam's stay. He also said that as far as he knew, no other hotel guests had ever been able to access the water tanks. No other employees noted hearing the alarm sound either, but Pedro Tovar, the hotel's chief engineer, said that had it sounded, the front desk and those on the 14th and 15th floor would have heard it.

The Cecil Hotel was built in the 1920s and has 600 rooms. It rebranded as Stay on Main after Lam's death, and was purchased in 2014 by New York hotelier Richard Born, who intends to rebrand the hotel in the next two years. Born said that when the Cecil's new identity is complete, it won't be like the Ritz-Carlton, but "it's going to be a place where you can stay for $150 a night and be proud. Everyone in downtown L.A. is going to want to charge $300 to $400 a night. When everyone zigs, I want to zag."

The hotel has a dark past, as it was once home to serial killer Richard "The Nightstalker" Ramirez and Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger. American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy has said that he based this current season of the horror anthology series, in part, on the hotel.