In Depth

Teenagers, alcohol and an empty house: What could go wrong?

Does your broker know you're part of the sharing economy? No lives were lost, but a teenage party that left a West Vancouver home in shambles should be a reminder of liability pitfalls to anyone with rental property. Or anyone with kids for that matter.

Costly West Vancouver party highlights liability questions for anyone turning house over to kids

Shattered glass outside the house in West Vancouver where a teenage girl and 200 friends managed to cause $20,000 worth of damage. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Does your broker know you're part of the sharing economy?

No lives were lost, but a teenage party that left a West Vancouver home in shambles should be a reminder of liability pitfalls to anyone with rental property. Or anyone with kids.

"I think people see it — obviously — as an opportunity to make money in an unregulated sharing environment, but I don't think that very many go to a lawyer, for example, to say: 'What is my potential exposure here?" says Bill Dick, a Kelowna-based personal injury lawyer.

"What am I getting into in a worst case scenario? What is my worst case scenario? What's going to happen if I get sued? And what do I need to do to protect myself?

"I think, at the very least, people should turn their minds to that and understand that what they're getting into has at least the potential, when they're renting out their premises to multiple people, to have problems that may arise in unforeseen ways."

What's 'unforeseen' when it comes to teens?

Flying bottles, fireworks and trashed artwork weren't likely what the owners of the West Van home had in mind when they listed it for rental — but then they also probably didn't think their renter would be a 14-year-old girl armed with her parents' credit card.

According to police, "swarms" of teenagers — more than 200 by some estimates — landed on the house, causing $20,000 worth of damage.

A pillow, towel and beer bottles on the porch of the West Vancouver house, days after the party. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The homeowner and the teens' family have agreed to sort the damages out themselves, but it goes without saying that it could have been far worse.

After all, when it comes to teenagers, alcohol and an empty home, what kind of circumstance truly qualifies as "unforeseen"?

'The potential for harm is horrendous'

"It terrifies parents everywhere, me included," said Brian Maltman, executive director for the General Insurance OmbudService, which handles insurance disputes for Canadians.

"This kind of stuff can happen. This is not movie time. This is within the realm of everyday possibility and the potential for harm is horrendous."

Maltman says the home insurance industry has watched the rise of services like Airbnb or VRBO with alarm. He has little doubt a claim linked to a short term property rental would render many policies void.

Airbnb says it uses technology to screen guests for risk. But the company also provides two different types of insurance to renters, each worth up to $1 million. (Gabrielle Lurie/Reuters)

"Insurance is rated on risk and the risk of living in your own home is very different to renting out your own home. One's a commercial activity: it's rated differently because you have people who are unknown coming into the house," he said.

"Just like Uber, this is a case of technology moving way ahead of the safety systems we have in place, not just legally, but insurance — and the rest of the world playing catch up."

Although Airbnb may be one of the most widely known rental companies, they are only one of many on the market. Airbnb says the West Vancouver home was not rented out through its services.

But the company says it puts considerable effort into verifying the identity of users and assessing risk. Guests are supposed to provide full name, date of birth, photo, phone number and email address.

Airbnb also provides renters with two different types of insurance, each worth $1 million: one for property damage, and the other for claims of third party damage or bodily injury.

Duty of care?

Dick says claims for injuries regularly climb far higher than the million dollar threshold.

He talks with groups of parents in the Okanagan about their responsibilities around the hosting of graduation parties, which raise similar liability issues to the West Vancouver situation.

The courts have held that if adults allow teenagers to party in their homes, they have a social host liability to provide minors a duty of care. That can also extend to any accidents that happen on the road as a result of intoxication.

Perhaps more to the point, the civil courts have established an occupier's liability for alcohol-related injuries occurring as a result of the condition of your property or the activities of your other guests.

Dick points to a case involving a young adult who fell off a bridge on a home property near Kamloops during a party. He was rendered a paraplegic.

The party was hosted by the children of the couple who the young man sued. Even though the parents weren't there, they were found liable — in part — for his injuries, because they failed to install handrails and an appropriate guardrail.

Where that leaves someone who agrees to rent their home to a stranger through an app is anybody's guess. But both Dick and Maltman have little doubt the courts will weigh in eventually.

And who wants to be the test case?

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.