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Airbnb ordered to disclose details of complaint by guest who gave B&B owner a ‘long massage’

In Mark Howell v Airbnb UK Ltd (23 July 2015) Airbnb, an online company facilitating a bed and breakfast booking service from local hosts worldwide, was ordered to disclose full details of a complaint from a female guest against a male host which had resulted in his membership being withdrawn and 21 future bookings via the website cancelled.

Mr Howell is suing Airbnb breach of contract - for cancelling his Airbnb membership and the resultant loss of profit – and for libel.

Mr Howell claims that the guest who complained about him gave him a ‘long massage’ whilst she had stayed in his guest house. The guest complained to Airbnb, but Airbnb refused to provide details of the complaint to Mr Howell beyond the name of the complainant. Airbnb contacted 21 people who had future bookings with Mr Howell, whom were told to find alternative arrangements as Mr Howell had ‘violated terms of service’. Up until this complaint Mr Howell said he had been receiving a good income from renting his spare room via the website and had received no complaints.

At the hearing in the High Court Mr Howell stated that he had been given a massage from the female guest, but that it had been at her instigation, he suspected, as a means of paying less for her stay. HHJ Moloney QC (sitting as a High Court Judge) commented that ‘It sounds like a funny way to run a B & B’ but ordered Airbnb to provide particulars of the complaints so that the applicant could address them fully.  He noted that whilst Airbnb owed a duty of confidentiality to its users that this was no bar to the obligation to disclose relevant documents in the course of litigation.

In addition to seeking full disclosure of the complaint, Mr Howell had sought an interim injunction preventing Airbnb from discussing the complaints with third parties and requiring the interim reinstatement of the listing on the website. In refusing to grant the injunction, HHJ Moloney noted that whilst the email to the 21 guests who had future bookings was ‘arguably defamatory and calculated to lower the reputation of the application in the eyes of others who knew who he is’ as there had only been communication with the 21 future guests the damage (whether serious or not) had already been done. There was no evidence to suggest that any future dissemination of the allegations would occur. It was held that there was no real risk of defamation. In refusing interim relief for reinstatement on the website, HHJ Moloney held that Airbnb’s contract with Mr Howell expressly provided for termination summarily, without notice or reason, at its own discretion.

The case has attracted the attention of the mainstream press with articles appearing in both the broadsheets and tabloid newspapers together with considerable interest on social media; perhaps a salient reminder that the instigation of defamation proceedings can sometimes result in matters reaching a much wider audience than the original publication, substantially raising the reputation stakes.



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