Austin couple suing Airbnb after house catches fire

An Austin couple is suing Airbnb and a guest that allegedly started a fire that destroyed their home and property.

AUSTIN - An Austin couple is suing Airbnb, and their Airbnb guest, after their home caught fire and they said the company didn't do enough to help them. 

According to the lawsuit filed by Kenneth Flippin and Candace Duval, the couple contracted with Airbnb to sublet their rented property located at 3806 Holt Drive in Austin while they were in Colorado on a work trip back in July 2015. 

The Airbnb renter allegedly put a discarded cigarette in an outside trash can, which sparked a fire that damaged the home and Flippin's and Duval's belongings. 

“It’s just like a complete mess in our entire space," Flippin said. “It’s just devastating.”

The couple said they lost valuable artwork, family heirlooms and household items such as clothing, electronics and appliances.

“It was just emotionally overwhelming, it’s like you can’t really take it all in, you know it’s just like each item or each room, or each thing, it’s like kind of individually challenging and difficult to deal with," Flippin said. 

According to them, Airbnb gave them a "Host Guarantee" to reimburse them for losses to their personal property, but instead they said they feel they got a runaround.

So now, they're asking for recovery of damages including property and mental anguish.

“I wouldn’t want other people to have to go through that same process when that happens because it could be changed easily," Flippin said. 

Flippin and Duval are seeking monetary relief between $200,000 and $1,000,000, according to the court documents.

“Even though those things are just things, they’re connected to people, or emotions, or memories of relationships and so forth. It’s those kinds of things that you know are difficult to just see that they’re just destroyed,” Flippin said. 

The couple said that they immediately contacted Airbnb to make a claim for their losses, and the service provided them a place to stay for approximately three weeks, though they said they had to move seven times to different properties during this span. When they voiced their preferences for a long-term place to stay, they said Airbnb responded by giving them an option to stay wherever they liked and they would reimburse them.

It took Flippin and Duval a year to find permanent housing, documents state, and they stayed in contact with Airbnb to ensure that their claim would be processed and complied with all conditions to claim for the losses of their property. Airbnb later directed them to submit claims documentation to the claims management group Crawford & Company.

“We just felt pushed around the entire time, and then the process of documenting it, it was clear it was going to take us months and months, because its 2,100 items, and it was challenging to document all of those items because its like going back again and realizing that this is something that you’ve lost, it’s not valuable anymore because it still smells like smoke, or whatever, but you still have to take a picture of it, you have to remember where you bought it from, you have to list the store, the address. I mean it was just kind of an overwhelming process just to even fill out the insurance documentation," Flippin said. 

“Best case scenario is we’re hoping Airbnb will take responsibility to provide my clients the compensation they need. Originally they were seeking compensation for their property damage, but now as a result of the ordeal they’ve gone through, they’ve also lost time from work, documenting items, they’ve had significant mental anguish, being dragged through this process, being forced to relive this tragedy, and feeling like they’re not getting the respect they deserve,” said John Kitchens, the couple's attorney. 

The plaintiffs said it took them a year to fill out the forms, which required them to list out each item lost in complete detail. They also claimed the experience forced them into mental anguish and they had to subject themselves to a toxic environment in order to recover each item.

“It felt like one of those gotcha processes, cause its like okay, we kept contacting you, asking you detailed questions -- 'Can we count this, can we count that?' They told us we can’t count different things at different times, and every time we had to call them, it wasn’t like a certain person would call us back and talk to us. We had to wait on hold -- we had to explain our entire situation to another stranger,” Flippin said. “It felt like it was meant for us to fail and ultimately give up.”

The lawsuit claims that Airbnb breached its contract by failing to pay the full amount of the plaintiff’s covered losses. It also accuses Payne of negligence for improperly disposing of the smoking materials that caused the fire, holding him responsible for all other reasonably foreseeable damages caused by his alleged negligence. The lawsuit claims that Airbnb and Crawford & Company are in violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by engaging in misleading and deceptive acts, practices and/or omissions.

"I mean it was like, it was devastating, it was shocking that they would say that they're going to be responsible and then turn around and say, 'Oh well not only did we close it down, we're not even going to open it up or talk to you,'" Flippin said. “Really they just needed to work with us more -- like we’re just human beings -- to have a process to connect us with somebody when we didn’t have to tell our story time and time again.”

“Airbnb provided them with a guarantee that they’re going to take care of them, but then they did not do so," Kitchens said. 

Per the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking recovery of all damages and mental anguish experienced during the incident and are demanding the defendants pay all costs of court and attorney fees related to the case.

“This whole situation is frustrating. It’s frustrating to deal with the paper work, then its frustrating to have to go find an attorney, and work out all the legal processes. We just want it to be behind us,” Flippin said. 

As for the Airbnb renter, Flippin said they understand accidents happen, and don't have any hard feelings toward him. 

An Airbnb representative told KVUE Thursday that they gave the couple multiple extensions, and said the documentation they requested is typical. 

The representative said the couple stopped responding, and said after several months, they closed the case. 

According to the company, they paid the property owner, who is not the couple suing, for damages under the "Host Guarantee." 

Airbnb provided the following statement to KVUE Thursday:

The safety of the Airbnb community is the most important thing we work on every day and we were deeply saddened by this unfortunate incident. We reimbursed the property owner and worked to support the hosts under our Million Dollar Host Guarantee program. There have been over 200 million guest arrivals on Airbnb and negative incidents are incredibly rare, but when they happen, we work to make things right.

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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