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Massachusetts SJC to address whether provider of AirBNB has a duty to prevent harm to occupant

The Massachusetts SJC will decide whether putting a home on AirBNB creates a duty to prevent harm that occurs on the property.  What duty of care does an AirBNB owner need to provide?

Nowadays, most of us have some sort of “side hustle.” The internet and apps make having a side hustle easier than ever. The law tends to struggle to keep up with this rapidly changing technology.  The case of  Styller v. Aylwardraises the questions of what duty of care is owed to a renter on AirBNB.

What happened in the Styller case?

The defendant began renting out his home as an Airbnb. He advertised his home as a Super Modern European Mansion and made a significant source of his income from the short term rentals. In May of 2016, Styller rented his home to defendant Victor. Victor paid for a three-day stay and said that he would be hosting five guests. Instead, Victor advertised the home on social media and held a giant pool party where over 100 guests showed up. During the pool party, Keivan Heath was fatally shot at around 3 am. He was found floating in the pool with two bullet holes in his chest. He was transferred to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.  At the trial court level, Styller filed a motion to dismiss because the only relationship that he had with Victor and his guests was that of landlord-tenant and that he had no duty to the guests to prevent or protect against an unlawful shooting. Styller contended that he had no foreseeability of a dangerous event leading to a death. This issue before the court is whether the relationship between Styller and the Airbnb guest is that of landlord-tenant.

Is there a Duty to Prevent Harm when renting out house on AIRBNB?  

The plaintiffs in this case argue that in general tort law, the duty of care owed by the operator of a short term rental to a guest is to protect from the dangerous acts of others. The plaintiffs argue that this general principle should be extended to short term rentals. Operators are in a unique position, far better than the guests who occupy their properties, to take additional steps to ensure the safety of guests during the duration of short-term rentals.  Second, a special relationship exists between operator and guest because a duty of care is grounded when “a duty voluntarily assumed must be performed with due care.” Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 52 (1983).

However, at the appellate court level, the court found that Styller did not owe Heath a duty of care, because the shooting was not a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm. There was no reason for Styller to know that there was a risk of violence at the property on the night of the shooting. He was under no obligation to surveille the property during Victor’s stay. To the contrary, most guests prefer that the owner of the property is not involved during their visit. Styller was in a very limited position to prevent criminal acts from taking place at the property. He did not have notice that there would be a risk of gun violence at the property.

The plaintiff is arguing that the property owner had acknowledge of the number of guests and that the terms of the agreement were being violated.  Accordingly, the plaintiff’s argue that it was reasonably foreseeable that the situation could get out of hand and someone could get injured.

I think the plaintiff have a good argument that in some cases liability should extend to an operator of an AIRBNB. Had the injury been related to the pool party, someone drowning, injury from excessive alcohol, I would expect a different result.  In this case,  the shooting was so unforeseeable that the SJC will likely not find liability in this case, though this decision is likely to put AIRBNB owners on notice that other circumstances could give rise to liability.

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