No Return for the Vacation From Hell

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 16, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Peter Hiam's vacation hell started before he left.

He booked a tropical villa for a week in Belize, only to learn later that the property didn't exist. He was out more than $46,000, so he went after the online service that set it up.

The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals shared Hiam's bewilderment over the company's actions, but that wasn't enough to get his money back. In Hiam v., the watchword is "limited guarantee."

VRBO Vacation

VRBO, short for "vacation rentals by owner," is a website operated by HomeAway. It acts like an online bulletin board, allowing property owners to list properties for rent.

Peter Hiam, with the help of his adult son, used the site to plan a family vacation in 2014. With rooms for fourteen people, a private chef, local transportation, and other amenities, "The Jewels of Belize" sounded like the perfect spot.

Of course, it was not -- literally. There's a Facebook page with a similar name, but Hiam said nobody was home for the rental he purchased.

The company investigated his claim, and discovered other people had been scammed by the same listing. In addition to its Terms and Conditions, the website offered a limited guarantee up to a $1,000.

Conditional Refund

Hiam wanted no part of it and sued, arguing the company's contract was also a sham. A trial judge dismissed, and Hiam appealed.

The First Circuit saw the problem right away. No doubt Hiam got scammed, but HomeAway had a clear limit to its guarantee.

"It clearly discloses that the 'nature and extent of the guarantee' is a conditional limited refund of 50% of the amount paid, up to $1000," the appeals panel said. "Any amount lost above that is excluded from coverage."

The judges said they shared Hiam's "bewilderment," and seemed to empathize with his loss. But, they said, the guarantee was not misleading or deceptive.

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