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Mon 7th Dec 2020 - QC claims consumers are at risk in using Airbnb, sector calls for government action
QC claims consumers are at risk in using Airbnb, sector calls for government action: As the global accommodation business Airbnb prepares to issue shares within days, a leading lawyer has examined the consumer protections offered by the “platform” and found “consumers are at risk in using Airbnb”. William Audland QC, of 12 King’s Bench Walk Chambers, one of the UK’s top specialists in personal injury and package travel law, has highlighted the fact Airbnb’s small print avoids any responsibility for the safety – and even the legal compliance – of the accommodation it offers. Its terms and conditions clam the global accommodation business is a mere “platform”, taking no responsibility in law for the accommodation that “hosts”, advertises and sells through its website and app. The QC found “Airbnb’s position starkly contrasts with more traditional holiday letting businesses that must comply with coronavirus regulations as well as other more general health and safety regulations”. He said “Airbnb circumvents this by virtue of its stated position as a ‘platform’ offering short-term lets, disavowing itself of any responsibility for the listings”. He added: “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.” Particularly damning is the QC’s finding 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)”. The QC concluded: “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.” The QC believes “this state of affairs needs to be remedied”, and makes three key “suggestions for reform”:

1. Mandatory registration of all short-term lets with local councils: The registration process should include a verification of the identity and property rights of the host of the accommodation in question and a mandatory safety inspection either by the council itself or by a third party at the host’s (or Airbnb’s) cost. Mandatory registration is already a requirement in many cities in Europe;

2. Mandatory third-party insurance for short-term lets of a sum sufficient to cover multiple catastrophic injuries and/or fatalities: Airbnb should be required to make this an express condition for listing properties on its website; and

3. Primary legislation that renders Airbnb liable for the acts and omissions of their hosts: This would be akin to the liability regime in the Package Travel Regulations 2018, imposing liability on platform owners for the acts and omissions of the hosts who advertise on the platform [just as, 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], and could be coupled with a mandatory requirement Airbnb itself holds sufficient insurance cover as set out above.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls 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 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.” David Weston, chairman of the Bed & Breakfast Association, added: “No commercial business should be allowed to ‘opt out’ of responsibility for customer safety in the way that Airbnb and similar ‘platforms’ have been able to so far. All our guests deserve equal protection – and the UK’s tourism reputation is in danger as long as such huge ‘black holes’ in safety are allowed. We welcome William Audland QC’s game-changing legal findings and his recommendations for reform, and look forward to playing a constructive role with government and other industry bodies in implementing them and protecting consumers, whichever kind of business they choose to book with. It is only right to be fair to guests and to level the playing-field for businesses.” 

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