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L.A. hotel sued over corpse found in water tank

By Erica Henry and Greg Botelho, CNN
March 1, 2013 -- Updated 1042 GMT (1842 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two former Cecil Hotel guests file a lawsuit against the L.A. hotel
  • They were guests in the hotel where a woman's corpse was floating in tank
  • The woman, Elisa Lam, is believed to have been there for as long as 19 days
  • Lawsuit says the water was "not fit for human ingestion or to use to wash"

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Two former guests have sued the proprietors of Los Angeles' Cecil Hotel, where a 21-year-old woman's corpse was found floating in a rooftop water tank.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court by Steven and Gloria Cott. Deeming it a "class action," the complaint specifies it could apply to "all persons similarly situated" -- meaning anyone who stayed at the hotel between February 1 and 19 this year.

For as long as 19 days, Elisa Lam's decomposing body was in one of the hotel's four cisterns while the Cotts and other guests below drank cups of water, bathed and brushed their teeth.

How did woman's body come to be in L.A. hotel water tank?

Cecil Hotel's dark history
Firefighters work to remove a body found inside a water tank on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on Tuesday, February 19. A young woman's body had likely been decomposing for more than two weeks, police said. Firefighters work to remove a body found inside a water tank on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on Tuesday, February 19. A young woman's body had likely been decomposing for more than two weeks, police said.
Body found in hotel water tank
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Photos: Body found in hotel water tank Photos: Body found in hotel water tank

A maintenance worker, checking on complaints about the hotel's water, found the young Canadian tourist on February 19, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Rudy Lopez said.

The lawsuit claims the hotel effectively contracted with its guests to provide water "fit for human ingestion and human consumption through showering" -- an obligation that the Cotts allege the hotel did not meet.

"Instead, the defendants provided water that had been contaminated by human remains and was not fit for human ingestion or to use to wash," the lawsuit states, claiming the Cotts believe that water was "tainted."

The Los Angeles Public Health Department immediately tested the water supply, but told the manager they could stay open as long as they provided bottle water and warned guests not to drink the tap water.

The results of the testing showed no harmful bacteria in the tank or the pipes, according to Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the department. Chlorine in the city's water may be the reason it is safe, he said last week.

The hotel did not immediately respond Thursday to a CNN request for comment.

Hotel with corpse in water tank has notorious past

New guests continued to check into the Cecil in the hours after firefighters removed Lam's body from the water tank. But each guest was asked to sign a waiver releasing the hotel from liability if they become ill.

"You do so at your own risk and peril," the hotel's release said.

Guests who already paid for their rooms would not get refunds if they moved out, it said.

In their lawsuits, the Cotts ask for a refund of the $150 total they paid to stay two nights -- checking in February 12 and checking out February 14 -- at the Cecil Hotel.

They also are seeking medical costs of approximately $100 and possibly more, if needed; court and attorney fees; and any "further relief as this court may deem just and proper."

Lam checked into the Cecil Hotel on January 26, on her way to Santa Cruz, California, according to police in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Five days later, she was seen on a security camera video walking into the elevator, pushing the buttons for four floors and then peering out of the opened elevator door as if she is hiding or looking for someone.

Clad in a red hoodie, Lam at one point walks out of the elevator before returning to it, pushing the buttons again. She then stands outside the open elevator doorway, motioning with her hands, before apparently walking away. It was the last day Lam was seen.

Authorities still have not officially determined how she died.

Los Angeles robbery-homicide detectives are treating this as a suspicious death for obvious reasons, since falling into a covered water tank behind a locked door on top of a roof would be an unusual accident, said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Rudy Lopez.

An autopsy has been completed, but the cause of death is deferred pending further examination, assistant chief coroner Ed Winter said last week. That may take six to eight weeks.

Any marks, injuries or wounds may suggest Lam died elsewhere and was dumped into the tank by her killer.

Water in Lam's lungs could be a sign that she drowned, but it might not tell why she was inside the small tank.

CNN's Erica Henry reported from Los Angeles and Greg Botelho wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN's Alan Duke contributed to this report.

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