With over one million unregulated listings globally, critics of Airbnb have long said it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt at one of the startup’s rentals. The most nightmarish scenario possible happened to a writer who is now coming forward: On Thanksgiving Day 2013, his father died from injuries sustained at the Airbnb where his family was staying.
This devastating story published by Medium’s Matter is written by Zak Stone, an LA-based writer and editor (he is also a friend of mine). His father’s death was accidental—he was swinging on a rope swing secured to a dead tree that split in half and crushed him—but Stone asserts that it might have been prevented if their Airbnb had been subject to the same standards as a regular hotel or B&B, which require regular inspections and strict safety guidelines. This idea of treating Airbnb rentals more like hotel rooms was exactly the kind of thing proposed in San Francisco by the Proposition F measure which was defeated last week. Airbnb spent $8 million to help defeat Prop F.
Stone’s family did not take legal measures against Airbnb, but the startup has normally been quick to respond to liability issues. The company implemented free $1 million damage insurance for hosts after a high profile story just like this one, but it was about trashing an apartment, not someone getting injured or killed. Maybe this story will help bring about reform. Stone points out what seems like one of the most egregious oversights when it comes to corporate policy: Airbnb will pay professional photographers to come to your house and capture images that will help to promote your listing, but won’t perform even the most basic safety audit. The company could just as easily send inspectors who could check for smoke alarms and fire escape routes, he suggests:
When it comes to home visits, I imagine Airbnb would resist offering these, given the problems it might pose for liability as well as the cost and complexity. But if Google can photograph every surface of the earth and the U.S. government can conduct a census, couldn’t Airbnb peek inside 1,000,000 properties if that would make its “community” safer? Tip from the sharing economy: just hire some TaskRabbits.
Could this particular incident have been prevented by a safety check like that? Would a TaskRabbit-appointed inspector have highlighted the dead tree as a hazard? It’s so tough to say. During the course of reporting the story Stone discovered that another woman was killed in an Airbnb due to carbon monoxide poisoning—and it could be argued that death might easily have been prevented with a $15 detection unit. But one might argue that the homeowners themselves should be held liable and that Airbnb shouldn’t be involved in any legal discourse; any of things could have just as easily happened if they were staying at a friend’s home.
Stone notes that although he has been working on telling his story for the past two years, the fact-checking process with Airbnb took longer than usual. But I also wonder if Airbnb didn’t delay the process on purpose to ensure the story was published after the Prop F vote. I noted in my story about Prop F’s defeat that Airbnb needed to be more responsible about public safety, and this story points to a gaping hole in its policy. One can only imagine how much this tragic story could have potentially damaged Airbnb’s campaign—and how much it still might hurt its work in different cities going forward.
[Read the whole story at Matter]
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA
Top art from the story by Matter