Airbnb lawsuit raises question of duty to warn of host’s arrest record

On this blog, we previously considered whether an Airbnb host could face liability for an assault committed by some third person.

Now, the company itself, Airbnb, faces the question of whether it can be held liable for the sexual assault of a guest, allegedly committed by an Airbnb host.

On this blog, we previously considered whether an Airbnb host could face liability for an assault committed by another person. Now, the company itself, an Airbnb lawsuit raises the question of whether the company may be liable for the sexual assault of a guest – allegedly committed by an Airbnb host himself.

Airbnb is a popular peer-to-peer online platform, through which travelers around the world can lease out or stay in others’ homes.  For each transaction on its platform, Airbnb retains a percentage as its fee.

In what the Guardian describes as “a first-of-its-kind” lawsuit, a guest sued Airbnb this week alleging that she was sexually assaulted by her host after renting a room through the online service.

The crux of the complaint is that Airbnb wrongfully permitted the host to list property on Airbnb’s site in light of a previous arrest (involving domestic violence).

Knowledge of this prior arrest would, the lawsuit claims, have been available to Airbnb through the background checks conducted.

And, presumably, if disclosed, this information would have prevented the plaintiff from leasing the room.

This most recent Airbnb lawsuit raises basic questions of duty under premises liability actions, only this time applied to a new world.

Airbnb admits that it conducted a background check on the host in question—but claimed that the company did not bar the host from listing his property on Airbnb because he had never actually been convicted of the alleged crime.

There can be little doubt that the question of what weight an arrest alone should carry generally in our society is a legitimate one.

But this particular case raises the question of whether Airbnb can reasonably be said to have induced reliance based on the company’s assurances (implied or express) of safety:

Teresa Li, Lapayowker’s attorney, argued that Airbnb misleads users with branding that emphasizes the safety of the platform and calling it a “trusted community marketplace”.

They lure you in and give you this false sense of security” she said.

Distilled to its essence, the question becomes did Airbnb have an affirmative duty to warn (whether as a matter of policy or foreseeability) of prior events that were revealed to the company through its background checks?

Or, from another angle, does Airbnb become a virtual landowner by listing and making properties available through its platform, sufficient to give rise to a duty to warn of associated dangers?

This question of whether Airbnb had a duty to pass on information of which the company had superior knowledge should most certainly be left for a jury to decide.