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Family of woman slain during Costa Rica vacation sues Airbnb, resort owners

Carla Stefaniak, left, was vacationing in Costa Rica when authorities say she was killed by Bismarck Espinosa Martinez. [Facebook] Martinez, right, is being held by Costa Rican authorities. [Judicial Investigation Department of Costa Rica]
Published Dec. 21, 2018

TAMPA – The Riverview family of a woman slain during a vacation in Costa Rica is suing Airbnb and the owners of the resort where she rented a room with her sister-in-law during the November trip.

In a civil lawsuit filed in Hillsborough County courts on Thursday, the family of Carla Stefaniak claimed that the owners of Villa le Mas, a secluded resort in the San Jose suburb of San Antonio de Escazú and now called Villa Buena Vista, failed to conduct a background check on a Nicaraguan security guard who was in Costa Rica illegally.

Costa Rican authorities say the guard, Bismark Espinoza Martinez, killed Stefaniak on Nov. 28 — her 36th birthday — after she returned alone to the apartment villa she rented through Airbnb. About one week later, on Dec. 3, search dogs discovered Stefaniak's half naked body wrapped in plastic bags and half buried in dense vegetation on the property about 1,000 feet from her room.

Contacted Friday about the lawsuit, Airbnb said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that said it has removed the resort from its website and is "standing by to support (the) investigation, as justice must be served quickly."

"Our hearts are broken for Carla's family, friends, and loved ones," the statement said. "We reached out to provide support to them during this unimaginably difficult time."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Stefaniak's two brothers by Tampa attorney Jeffrey "Jack" Gordon, states that Martinez's job came with the free use of a hotel apartment, which was next to the one rented by Stefaniak. The 32-year-old guard had a pass key to every room in the complex, the lawsuit claims.

The suit lists a number of negligence claims against the resort's owners and Airbnb, claiming the worldwide third-party vendor was negligent in its duty to protect customers. All parties profiting from Stefaniak's booking, including Airbnb, should have known the potential danger posed by giving Martinez "unsupervised access to vulnerable women guests in a private setting," according to the lawsuit.

Airbnb allowed landlords to earn substantial income by operating outside laws governing conventional hotels, the lawsuit said. The online rental agency also failed to conduct background checks on the staff at the complex before adding the resort to its roster of online rental properties.

Airbnb also misrepresented the accommodations by deleting negative guest reviews on its site, the lawsuit claims.

"While defendant, Airbnb, posted complimentary and positive reviews of the resort property and its hosts, there are and were multiple reports since 2013 of guests who encountered bad experiences and recounted being victimized by personnel affiliated with the resort that Defendant, Airbnb sanitized from its own promotions and advertising materials," the lawsuit states.

U.S. Department of State travel advisories issued through its Bureau of Consular Affairs have warned for several years that violent crime such as armed robbery and assault is common in Costa Rica. The warning also state that local police lack resources to "respond effectively to serious criminal incidents," the lawsuit states.

Neither the resort nor Airbnb communicated these warnings to their customers, the lawsuit states. Stefaniak's estate is seeking damages from both parties for the loss.

Stefaniak was reported missing by family when she failed to board her flight home from Costa Rica on Nov. 28, her 36th birthday. A "Finding Carla" Facebook page and social media campaign went viral as the search for her continued for a week.

Forensic analysis of the body suggests that "multiple persons were involved in removing and disposing" her body, the lawsuit says.

Costa Rican investigators discovered trace amounts of blood in the villa apartment Stefaniak rented through Airbnb, and an autopsy found that her death was caused by blunt force trauma to her head. Stefaniak also received a broken neck and cuts on her neck and arms, according to the autopsy.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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