Boat Rental Marketplace Defeats Lawsuit Over Offline Boating Accident–In re Chaves

A rare case analyzing Section 230’s intersection with admiralty law.

The case involves GetMyBoat, an online marketplace for boat rentals. Listings are free, but GetMyBoat takes a cut of any booked transactions. A young woman, Lindsey Faith Partridge, used GMB to rent a boat from Chaves. A boating accident led to Lindsey’s tragic death. Chaves sought a declaration of non-liability (an “exoneration”), which prompted Lindsey’s estate to sue GMB as well. GMB defeats the estate’s claim on Section 230 and other grounds.

ICS Provider. “Here is it undisputed that GMB is ‘an online venue on which Vessel owners . . . post their vessels for rental, lease, or charter by use of the website.’”

Third-Party Content. “It is undisputed that Petitioner [Chaves] ‘was a member of GMB, and utilized the venue to offer his vessel for lease, rental, or charter.’”

Publisher/Speaker Claim. The estate claimed that GMB:

enters into membership agreements with boat owners; wrote a contract for membership between boat owners and renters and between itself and members/renters; GMB is the only party in the transaction that provides the contract for rental; and has its own secure payment system wherein it collects money for the rental and then disperses a portion of it to the member after the rental. Get My Boat acts as an arbitrator when its members and renters have a disagreement. And as is evident in particular from this case, Get My Boat uses its authority to hold funds from members while it conducts investigations into certain claims.

It sounds like the estate is trying to navigate into the HomeAway Section 230 exception for booking marketplace transactions. Yet, remarkably, the court doesn’t cite the HomeAway case at all. Instead, the court adopts GMB’s analogy/narrative, which makes this an easy defense win:

It is clear to the Court that GMB does, in fact, meet the third element required to establish immunity under the CDA…GMB had no right of disposition of Petitioner Chaves’ vessel. It had no right to do anything material with the vessel other than to allow Chaves to post the vessel for rent on GMB’s website. And GMB does not receive consideration for rental of the vessel; rather, it receives a modest service or subscription fee. In effect, GMB acts as a conduit, providing the tools to, in this case, put Chaves in touch with Ms. Partridge regarding the rental of Chaves’ vessel.

The court cites to L.H. v. Marriott (a case involving Craigslist’s classified ads service, not an online marketplace) and La Park La Brea v. Airbnb (a case that predates the HomeAway case).

As usual, I cringe at the court’s “conduit” language. As the court make clear, GMB undertakes a variety of trust and safety efforts, so it’s not a typical communications “conduit.”

Nevertheless, the court correctly recognizes that GMB’s involvement in the offline boating accident was limited to enabling the online interactions between the boat owner and renter. In that sense, this case is a natural follow-on to the uncited Doe v. MySpace case from 2008 and its progeny (assuming the Doe case is still good law in the Fifth Circuit, which isn’t guaranteed). It isn’t clear if the estate tried some of the more modern Section 230 workarounds, such as negligent design.

As a final argument, the estate apparently tried to position Section 230 as purely about liability for obscene speech. The court correctly rejects this:

upon review of the large number of cases in GMB’s papers and upon the Court’s own independent legal research, it is very clear that the CDA is being applied by many courts outside of the obscene speech context…Under the facts of this case, placing liability upon GMB would clearly have a chilling effect upon service providers like GMB.

This leads the court to summarize:

GMB is a service provider that runs a website which allows the prospective renter of a vessel to get in touch with the owner of the vessel. And the few ancillary services GMB provides do not serve to remove GMB from the protection of the CDA. To hold GMB liable under the facts of this case would clearly violate the provisions of the CDA.

GMB Isn’t a Livery. The court could have stopped there, but instead it says the estate’s case fails irrespective of Section 230 because GMB isn’t a “livery” under Florida law (defined as a provider of a vessel “leased, rented, or chartered to another for consideration”):

GMB did not lease, hire, or rent Petitioner’s vessel—nor did GMB have the authority or ability to lease, hire, or rent the vessel on behalf of Petitioner Chaves. GMB was merely a conduit website….

GMB did collect a relatively modest service or subscription fee, which consisted of a 7.5% portion of the total rental fee. But this fact does not turn a conduit website like GMB into a livery…

GMB simply provided a platform for Petitioner Chaves (the livery) to perform the tasks of advertising his boat rental, negotiating a rate, renting his own vessel, and earning a rental fee. While the rental fee was paid to GMB initially, GMB essentially held the rental fee in trust and then remitted it to Petitioner Chaves after deducting a modest service or subscription charge. GMB could not rent the vessel owned by Chaves on its own and Chaves was not an agent of GMB

The “in trust” styling could lead to future legal tension as it implies a fiduciary relationship. In this respect, GMB functioned as a payment processor, nothing more.

The court also adds that Lindsey’s death was not attributable to some defect with the boat:

It would be against all logic, given the express language of the 2021 version of the Florida Livery Statute, to find that GMB could have been responsible for (or could have believed itself to be responsible for) tasks such as ensuring that a boating safety placard was posted and ensuring that all pre-rental and pre-ride instructions were given by someone who had completed a boater safety course approved by the State of Florida.

All told, this case would fail with or without Section 230. In other words, Section 230 is not responsible for this tragedy, and reforming Section 230 wouldn’t have prevented Lindsey’s death.

The Florida legislature (bless their hearts) amended the statute in 2023 (after Lindsey’s rental) to broaden the definition of a livery. Even if the new definition applied, the court questions if GMB was the one to “advertise and offer” the boat, as opposed to Chaves:

it is Chaves who places the advertisement on GMB’s website. Further, GMB does not have the authority to “offer” Chaves’ vessel for rent and merely allows Chaves to utilize GMB’s website so that Chaves can “offer” his vessel for rent. GMB is not the party renting the vessel; rather, it is Chaves who rents the vessel.

Though the court doesn’t discuss any of the precedent cases, the court is addressing the well-litigated question of whether online marketplaces are legally responsible as the “seller” of marketplace items. In the context of boat rentals, this court would treat the merchant (Chaves) as the sole party responsible for the marketplace listing and any harm occasioned by it.

The Estate’s Indemnity of GMB. Lindsey agreed to GMB’s TOS, so GMB invoked its indemnity clause. Given GMB’s lack of liability, the indemnity would function like an attorneys’ fee shift clause. The court says the TOS is an enforceable “clickwrap” :

it is undisputed that Lindsey Partridge had to click on “I Agree” to create an account with GMB…the screen on which Lindsey Partridge clicked “accept” had three hyperlinks to the “Privacy Policy,” “Member Interface Agreement,” and “Terms of Use.”  The three hyperlinks were in a blue font that stood out from the other grey font on the page.  Additionally, there was a large blue “Accept” rectangular button. Thus, the Terms of Use Agreement is a proper clickwrap contract, and the undisputed facts establish that Lindsey Partridge assented to its terms

Case Citation: In re Chaves, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23688 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 9, 2024)

The post Boat Rental Marketplace Defeats Lawsuit Over Offline Boating Accident–In re Chaves appeared first on Technology & Marketing Law Blog.

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