It's not your fault your client was robbed

Mark Pestronk

Q: A client of our travel agency was robbed at gunpoint while on vacation on a Caribbean island. Now the client is threatening to sue our agency for failure to warn about the risk of robbery. It turns out that the State Department had a travel advisory that covered crime on the island, and the advisory warned about walking alone in the city where the crime occurred. We had no idea about that risk, but the client’s attorney claims we had a legal duty to read the State Department advisories and warn about the risk of robbery on the island. Do you agree?

A: The attorney’s position is ridiculous. No travel advisor can be expected to read, remember and warn about every risk in every State Department travel advisory. 

The State Department’s travel website has reports on 210 countries. Each country has a safety rating from Level 1 (“Exercise normal precautions”) to Level 4 (“Do not travel”). Within countries, the levels can increase or decrease depending on the locality, so to commit all this information to memory and disclose it appropriately would be impossible.

A travel advisor does have a legal duty to warn about destination risks, but the duty is much more limited than the client’s attorney alleges. It applies to destination or supplier risks that are known to the travel advisor or should be known to the travel advisor based on what has appeared in the trade press, including articles in the trade press about changes in State Department advisories. 

In other words, the travel advisor has to disclose relevant information from the trade press, and that information can include articles about State Department travel advisories. Conversely, if the trade press has not covered a danger, and if the advisor has no other knowledge of it, the advisor has no duty to warn the client.

Even then, the advisor’s duty to disclose is subject to three exceptions.

First, the risk has to be nonobvious. For example, even on a low-crime island, you shouldn’t leave your jewelry in an unlocked room safe.

The second exception is the case where the risk or danger is widely reported in the general media so that the client would ordinarily know about it anyway. For example, when all the newspapers had been reporting on the Icelandic volcano that grounded all flights to Europe, you would not have to disclose the situation to a client who wants to fly to Europe the following day.

Third, there is no duty to warn where the client already knows what he or she wants and the role of the advisor is merely to fulfill or carry out the instructions of the client. It is typical in business travel, where the client says, “I would like you to book the first flight tomorrow to Mexico City, returning on the last flight the next day.” The client obviously does not expect the travel agent to warn about crime in Mexico, and the advisor has no legal duty to do so. 

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