An article published earlier this month by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel alleges that travel agents did not warn their clients of potential dangers at resorts in Mexico ranging from sexual assault to death, but industry lawyers said agents do not have a legal duty to disclose the incidents described in the article.

The Journal Sentinel report, headlined "Travel agents and popular sites didn't share the risks with those booking travel to Mexico resorts," was authored by Raquel Rutledge and published April 11. It follows a Journal Sentinel investigation, according to the article, during which the newspaper heard from more than 170 tourists who'd had issues in Mexico in recent years. The same news outlet also published reports last summer about incidents in which visitors from the U.S. said they had been drugged or abused.

Industry lawyer Mark Pestronk, Travel Weekly's Legal Briefs columnist, said that both agents and tour operators are subject to the same standard when it comes to the duty to warn clients of potential dangers.

"The legal standard is that they must disclose dangers that they know about (or should know about by reading the trade press) and that the average client would not know about," he wrote in an email. "On the other hand, they are not required to warn about obvious dangers or extremely highly publicized dangers. This standard is so vague that there is no way to apply it in practice, because you can never know which category a given danger will fall into until a jury decides after the fact."

Pestronk recommended that agents avoid lawsuits by taking three steps. First, give clients the State Department's website and instruct them to navigate to the page on Mexico; second, follow up with an email with the link to that exact page; and third, have clients sign a disclaimer that also includes the same links.

He said he does not believe agents need to disclose any of the allegations made in the Journal Sentinel articles.

"They would just say, when it comes to Mexico, 'Take a look at this link at the State Department that tells you everything that there is to know,'" he said. "The travel agent has disclosed everything that the travel agent knows and everything that a reasonable consumer should know. Therefore, the travel agent is not going to be liable for failure to warn."

The State Department's page on Mexico does include information, added after the Journal Sentinel's initial reports last year, about possibly tainted alcohol and a caution about drinking in moderation.

If a client asks an agent about the reported incidents, Pestronk advised them to direct the client to the State Department.

Travel lawyer Rodney Gould, a partner with the Boston-based firm Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo, agreed with Pestronk's evaluation of what an agent is lawfully required to disclose to clients.

"If you could easily, as a professional, have found out [about a danger], you have that obligation" to inform, he said.

Gould said he also advises agents to have their clients sign a disclaimer and direct them to resources like the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And as for the incidents reported by the Journal Sentinel, Gould is of the same opinion as Pestronk: Agents do not have a duty to disclose them to their clients.

"You don't have to report on every bit of gossip and innuendo and hearsay that comes down the pike," he said.

ASTA said in a statement that the Society is aware of the reported incidents in Mexico, calling them "the exception to the rule for the more than 30 million Americans visiting Mexico each year."

Agents are required to "disclose information that is 'material' to their clients' travel plans," ASTA said.

"In our view, 'material' means information that, if known to the client, would be reasonably likely to influence the traveler's decision with respect to where, when or how to travel," ASTA said. "Agents who elect to make a specific disclosure concerning these reports should refer their clients to objective third-party sources of information, such as that maintained by the State Department."

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