As Airbnb prepares to issue shares within days, a lawyer has said that consumers are "at risk in using Airbnb".
William Audland QC of 12 King's Bench Walk Chambers said that Airbnb's small print avoids any responsibility for the safety – and even the legal compliance – of the accommodation it offers. Its terms and conditions claim that the global accommodation business is a "platform", taking no responsibility in law for the accommodation that "hosts" advertise and sell through its website and app.
The QC said: "Airbnb's position starkly contrasts with more traditional holiday letting businesses, which must comply with coronavirus regulations as well as other more general health and safety regulations… [Airbnb] circumvents this by virtue of its stated position as a ‘platform' offering short-term lets, disavowing itself of any responsibility for the listings.
"A consumer who suffers personal injury as a result of accommodation provided through Airbnb has no apparent recourse against Airbnb. Any civil claim against the host is fraught with difficulty, particularly if the host is domiciled abroad."
He added that Airbnb "does not appear to check or ensure compliance with its stated requirement that properties advertised must conform to any applicable laws (including health and safety laws and standards)", and "by contrast to more traditional… holiday letting contracts, which are subject to both mandatory regulatory compliance and a far easier liability regime, consumers appear to be in a substantially riskier position in booking accommodation through Airbnb".
Audland QC has made three suggestions for reform: • mandatory registration of all short-term lets with local councils, including verification of the identity and property rights of the host of the accommodation and a mandatory safety inspection either by the council or by a third party at the host's (or Airbnb's) cost; • mandatory third-party insurance for short-term lets of a sum sufficient to cover multiple catastrophic injuries and/or fatalities; and • primary legislation that renders Airbnb liable for the acts and omissions of its hosts, akin to the liability regime in the Package Travel Regulations 2018 [since 1992, tour operators have had 100% liability for the safety of accommodation they do not own but offer for sale on behalf of owners], which could be coupled with a mandatory requirement that Airbnb itself holds sufficient insurance cover.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: "The hospitality industry has always put guests first, so taking responsibility for their safety is at the very heart of what we do. At a time when thousands of small businesses are struggling to survive and have made huge investments in extending their guests' safety to include Covid-19-secure operating, it is wrong that giant platforms have so far been allowed to avoid all responsibility. They are putting their guests at risk.
"We call on the government to take note of this leading QC's expert warning, and to sit down with the whole industry as soon as possible, to implement his ‘suggestions for reform' and give all consumers the protections currently enjoyed by those of hotels, B&Bs, lettings agencies and tour operators."