Air BNB Host Not Liable for Visitor’s Death – Supreme Judicial Court

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Earlier this week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit filed against an Air BNB host.

The host/property owner entered into a short-term rental agreement in 2016. The man who rented the property claimed that he was using it over the weekend for a college reunion.

Instead the renter posted advertisements on social media announcing as “Splash Mansion Pool Party” by “Special Invitation & Girls Only.”

The party, which took place over Memorial Day Weekend, was so large that over a hundred people were in attendance by 1 a.m.

Around 3 a.m. a man standing near the pool was shot twice in the chest and died shortly thereafter. The shooter was never identified.

The decedent’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the property owner claiming that the property owner “committed a breach of his duty to conduct the rental of his home in a ‘reasonable, prudent, and legal manner’ and that, as a result, the decedent was shot and killed.”

The property owner moved to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that the estate failed to show he owed a duty to protect the decedent from injury by a third party.

The trial court agreed with the property owner and dismissed the case. The estate appealed the decision. The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the estate’s arguments on appeal and affirmed the trial court’s decision.

According to the SJC,

A viable negligence claim requires a showing that a defendant owes a duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff, the defendant committed a breach of that duty, the plaintiff suffered damage, and a causal relationship existed between the breach of duty and the damage.

The opinions states the this duty of reasonable care “depends upon the foreseeability of a risk of harm that the defendant has an ability to prevent” and “does not extend to taking affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons.”

In the case at hand, the estate failed to show that the property owner could reasonably foresee the harm to the decedent. Therefore, the wrongful death claim was rightfully dismissed.

The opinion also made clear that there is a distinction between hotels and restaurants and those who rent their residential property online.

The defendant argues that just as restaurants, hotels, and common carriers have a duty to protect their customers from third-party harm, the defendant, as a “short-term rental operator,” had the same duty vis-à-vis those lawfully on his property during a rental. This comparison misses the mark. Aside from the fact that there is no allegation of any relationship between the defendant and the decedent other than the fact that the decedent was shot and killed on property owned by the defendant, perhaps the biggest difference between the relationship between a business establishment and its customers and the defendant’s relationship to the decedent is that the defendant had no control over the premises during the rental period. As the plaintiff acknowledged in the complaint, at the start of the rental period the defendant gave [the renter] sole and exclusive possession of his [r]esidence for the three-day stay, with no visits, monitoring, or supervision by [the defendant].” In short, aside from ensuring that the property was in a reasonably safe condition when he turned the premises over to [the renter]…the defendant owed no additional duty of care to the decedent.

For the full opinion click here.

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