The “No One Expects a Rabid Mongoose” Defense

Eugene Volokh notes an unusual fact pattern in the case of Woods-Leber v. Hyatt Hotels of Puerto Rico:

[Hyatt’s] Cerromar Beach Hotel … in Dorado, Puerto Rico … occupies a picturesque oceanfront setting. Its verdant grounds are bordered on the west by a mangrove swamp which is under the protection of the Commonwealth’s Department of Natural Resources. On the far side of the swamp lies Lakeside Villas…. 

[P]laintiff-appellant Lynne Woods-Leber, a guest, was sunbathing near the hotel’s pool. Suddenly (and without any apparent provocation) a wild mongoose scurried into the pool area and bit her. Because the mongoose carried rabies, Woods-Leber underwent a series of painful inoculations….

[U]nder Puerto Rico law, a hotel-keeper owes its guests a heightened duty of care and protection…. Nevertheless, a hotel-keeper is not an insurer of its guests’ well-being…. Consequently, notwithstanding the heightened duty of care and protection, the hotel-keeper is not liable for harm unless the harm is reasonably foreseeable….

Hyatt had no knowledge, actual or constructive, either of the mongooses’ existence or of the incipient danger that they presented, at any time before the attack. The hotel personnel most directly involved in the matter … submitted affidavits which made plain that a mongoose had never before been seen on the hotel premises; that no one at the hotel knew of the presence of mongooses in the mangrove swamp or otherwise in the vicinity; and that, prior to the assault on Woods-Leber, no wild animal of any kind had ever bitten any hotel guest. By the same token, there was no evidence … that the temporary food preparation and storage area presented any hazard or that Hyatt should have known the inauguration of a construction project near the mangrove swamp portended an influx of wild animals. … Finally, there was no evidence either that a non-rabid mongoose, unprovoked, was likely to bite a supine sunbather, or that rabies was prevalent in the area….

Since a hotel-keeper, like any other owner or occupier of premises, cannot be held liable for that which it cannot reasonably foresee, the lower court did not err in granting Hyatt’s motion for summary judgment.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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