In a tragic story posted to Medium’s Matter blog, writer Zak Stone tells a tragic story about how his father died at an Airbnb rental.
In Stone’s telling, his dad went to go sit down at a rope swing suspended from a tree. The trunk the swing was attached to broke and fell on his father, who ultimately suffered severe brain damage and died.
Stone’s story illustrates a bigger problem faced by so-called “sharing economy” startups like Airbnb: there’s a lack of regulation and safety standards, and a lot of liability at stake at these companies.
Unlike bed and breakfasts and hotels, for example, Airbnb rentals aren’t required to be inspected or even to maintain things like cleanliness. Instead, the responsibility and liability are offloaded to hosts themselves. Airbnb says on its website: “Airbnb has no control over the conduct of Hosts and disclaims all liability.”
In a statement to Business Insider, Airbnb said: “We were shocked and heartbroken when we learned about these incidents and we continue to keep these guests and their families in our thoughts. Nothing is more important to us than safety.
“Over 60 million guests have stayed in an Airbnb and we are proud that accidents are incredibly rare. We know that every industry, every community, and every city grapples with safety issues and no one has an absolutely perfect record, but that’s what we strive for and we’ll keep working as hard as we know how to make our community safer for everyone.”
Airbnb users can provide reviews on properties if they have a negative experience to share, and you can call and speak to an Airbnb customer service rep at any hour of the day, but ultimately it’s up to hosts themselves to make sure they’re providing a safe rental — Airbnb doesn’t enforce specific safety standards.
And, Stone writes, “Home safety tips were not incorporated into the sign-up process for new properties until after my father’s incident.”
To be clear, incidents like Stone’s are exceedingly rare on Airbnb’s platform (and rarely publicized), and Airbnb is not the only company to run into liability problems — you’ll read equally rare stories about Uber drivers behaving badly too, for instance.
There’s been chatter about the potential for liability with Airbnb for a few years now. The New York Times’ Ron Lieber wrote in 2012: “It’s only a matter of time until something terrible happens.”
Part of what makes services like Airbnb appealing is that the sign-up process is seamless — you can snap a few pictures and list your home or apartment almost instantly on its app and website. And in an age of on-demand services, things like having a host complete a safety quiz or speak with an Airbnb trust and safety manager would impede that seamlessness.
For its part, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky hired Chip Conley as its head of global hospitality a couple years ago, and since then, Conley has begun providing “hospitality standards” for its hosts to follow.
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