Airbnb is an iconic and popular outgrowth of the gig economy, allowing individuals to travel less expensively by staying in the homes of individuals who voluntarily rent out their rooms or entire homes on a temporary basis. Although Airbnb holds its services out as a safe substitute for conventional hotels, what are your options if something goes wrong?
Unfortunately, by acting as a facilitator for individuals to stay in the homes of strangers, Airbnb provides an ideal platform for predators. Airbnb’s website encourages guests to rely on their verification of their hosts and reviews posted on the website, but it is unclear just how rigorous those vetting procedures are.
Airbnb’s website states that it “helps make sharing easy, enjoyable, and safe.” It also claims to “verify personal profiles and listings.” A guest or host may think she can reasonably rely on this representation, but a careful reading of Airbnb’s Terms of Service reveals this disclaimer: “User verification on the Internet is difficult and we do not assume any responsibility for the confirmation of any Member’s identity.” The Terms of Service go on to state that Airbnb “may,” but has “no obligation to” even ask members for any form of government identification. It also does not claim to conduct background or criminal record checks, though it does reserve the right to do so. These efforts to insulate itself from liability and evade responsibility, though, may not be effective. In Virginia, for example, disclaimers of liability from personal injury are invalid.
Airbnb’s Terms of Service contain a disclaimer of liability for any damages that may result from use of Airbnb’s services, but it simultaneously holds itself out as a service which verifies the legitimacy and safety of the hosts and guests registered on its website. This creates a tension and contradiction which may allow recovery by guests or hosts injured in the course of an Airbnb rental or experience. The first such lawsuit has just been filed by a female traveler who says that an Airbnb host sexually assaulted her. It remains to be seen how courts will address these claims by applying traditional legal concepts to a new business model, just as courts are facing lawsuits against Uber and other new economy ridesharing services.