Airbnb is being sued for an alleged sexual assault by a “superhost”
The gig economy’s blurred lines between employees and contractors have already proved a headache for governments looking to legislate, but now another problem is coming to light: who is to blame if a user breaks the law?
In a rather unpleasant case, highlighted by The Guardian, an Airbnb guest in Los Angeles is suing the company for an alleged sexual assault by one of its “superhosts” – users who are recommended for high ratings and decent turnover of guests.
I’m not going to go into the full queasy details of the allegations here – you can read the full explanation here if you’re curious – but here’s a short outline of events. The complainant claims she moved to LA for a job, initially moving into the superhost’s residence for a month while she looked for her own place. After three days, she felt uncomfortable enough to move out, but when returning to collect her stuff, she alleges that a non-consensual assault took place. She didn’t report this for a month afterwards: the police didn’t prosecute due to insufficient evidence, but Airbnb still removed the superhost from the site. Later, she discovered that the superhost had previously been arrested for domestic assault, and subsequently believes Airbnb didn’t do their due diligence in recommending the man.
Because the superhost wasn’t prosecuted in the domestic assault case, entering a diversion programme instead, he wasn’t flagged up in Airbnb’s background checks. The company claims it screens US hosts to ensure they’re not on the terrorist watch list, sex offenders register or with “significant misdemeanours”.
“I was just furious,” the complainant told The Guardian. “Why would they let somebody like this be a host?”
The superhost in question denies that allegation, claiming the encounter was consensual: “This woman just fully lied and made everything up,” he said. He also claims that the domestic assault accusation was a lie, highlighting the fact he wasn’t convicted. He believes it is unfair of Airbnb to ban him from a platform when no charges had been filed: “Airbnb has no respect for the homeowner … who is the one putting themselves in a liability situation,” he argued.
It’s pretty clear where Airbnb stands on the matter. “The abhorrent behaviour described has no place in our community and we will not tolerate it,” the company said in a statement. “We have been trying to support her in any way we can and we will continue to do so.”
The outcome of the case against Airbnb will be fascinating to see. Although no sexual assault charges were filed against the superhost, Airbnb has banned him from the site – so it will be interesting to see how a judge interprets this series of events if the case comes to trial. Other gig economy companies will be watching with interest: if it looks like they’re liable for their non-employee’s actions, the whole business model might look a whole lot less appealing.