Cupertino Courier

Family sues Airbnb over teen's death at Sunnyvale house party

Company, property owner accused of allowing illegal rental where 18-year-old was fatally shot in 2021

- By Shomik Mukherjee smukherjee@bayareanew­ Staff writer Ethan Baron contribute­d to this report.

When a raucous house party in Sunnyvale's quiet Raynor Park neighborho­od led to the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old, questions arose about why Airbnb had allowed the residence to be rented out in violation of numerous city rules.

Now the online vacation-rental giant will have to answer to a lawsuit filed by the family of Elias Elhania, the teenager killed at that party that drew as many as 200 young attendees on Aug. 7, 2021.

“Airbnb has a legal obligation to follow the law,” Teresa Li, the family's attorney, said in a statement. “The simple truth is that had Airbnb done so, Elias' life would have been spared.”

It's the latest fallout from the tragic incident that led to Elhania's death and left another man with injuries when shots were fired at the property after police arrived to respond to a noise complaint. The man suspected in the shooting was arrested in late 2021 and booked into county juvenile hall, having been 17 years old at the time.

In addition to Airbnb, the family has named as a defendant property owner Ke Zhou, who had listed the single-story home as a short-term rental on Airbnb after she purchased it in 2018.

Zhou never registered the address as a shortterm rental with the city of Sunnyvale, which requires that owners remain onsite when their property is rented. Sunnyvale also limits bookings of short-term rentals to just four guests at a given time. Instead, hundreds of partygoers between the ages of 16 and 19 filled the weekend party, which was promoted on Instagram as a “turn up.”

Airbnb, which exploded in growth during the tech era by letting vacationgo­ers rent homes, never followed up to make sure Zhou's property was in compliance with the city's rules, according to the family's lawsuit.

“All of this could have been prevented if Airbnb took illegal listings more seriously,” Li said in the statement. “And Airbnb, along with the site host, should be held accountabl­e for this senseless and tragic loss of life.”

The suit seeks damages from Zhou and Airbnb plus injunctive relief against the company's current enforcemen­t standards for rentals listed on the platform illegally.

In the wake of the fatal shooting, Airbnb said it planned to sue the guest who threw the party for damages, alleging the property was rented from Zhou under false pretenses. But no record of such a lawsuit is available in court records, suggesting the company never ended up filing one, Li said in an interview.

Zhou, meanwhile, was sued by Sunnyvale and the state of California; the suit claimed it was “extremely unlikely a massive, advertised house party would have occurred at the subject property had the `host' actually been there.”

Elhania, the son of immigrants from Morocco, was raised in Santa Clara, where he read at a college level by the ninth grade and wanted to one day open a nonprofit that improved access to literature abroad, the family said.

Details of how the teen, who had been invited to the house party by friends, ended up the victim of a fatal shooting have never come to light. His family, devastated by the shock, quickly relocated to Texas but plans to move back to California sometime this year, a representa­tive said.

“There is no pain in the world greater than parents having to bury their own son,” the family said in a statement. “To this date, his sisters still cannot sleep at night; his grandparen­ts do not accept his death, still believing that he is alive.”

The tragedy echoed elements of a mass shooting two years before in Orinda, one that left five dead at a Halloween party inside a mansion listed on Airbnb.

Similar to the shooting in Sunnyvale, the Orinda mass shooting sent shockwaves through the affluent suburb, leading Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky to tweet that the company would ban the renting of party houses in order to “get rid of abusive host and guest conduct.”

Airbnb officials could not be reached for comment on the Elhania family's lawsuit, first filed at Superior Court in San Francisco, the city where the $75 billion company is headquarte­red. The case has since been moved to federal court upon Airbnb's request, the family's attorney said March 24.

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