Uber Technologies, Inc. has fast become the largest of a new breed of transportation companies commonly known as “ride-sharing” nationwide and especially in large urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unfortunately, it appears that the growth of the company is outpacing the planning for safety and consumer protection. One high profile incident in San Francisco involving an Uber driver who struck and killed a 6 year old girl has now spawned both criminal charges against the driver and a wrongful death lawsuit against Uber. (See discussion here: Insurance Journal).
How do ride sharing companies operate in California?
Ride sharing is a good concept in theory. People “volunteer” to use their own vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers based through an app that is installed on a smart phone. It tracks where drivers are in relationship to potential passengers and allows people to request a “ride” at a moments notice as an alternative to calling a taxi. As I have discussed in other posts (see here), the California Public Utilities Commission (“PUC”) was one of the first public agencies to attempt to regulate these services and provide some basic requirements for operation. They enacted provisions which require Uber, Lyft, SideCar and others to conduct background checks on drivers, to train drivers on safety and to provide insurance above and beyond the limits of the auto accident policy for the vehicle or the driver.
Potential legal issues that arise out of a ride share company accident claim in CA:
While I think, again, that this is a great concept, the legal issues that potentially come into play here are starting to show some “flies in the ointment” as follows:
- When is an Uber Driver considered “On the Clock”: For legal purposes, an employer or “principal” is usually liable for the acts of its “agent” when that “employee” or “agent” is acting in the “course and scope” of their agency or employment relationship. When it comes to ride share drivers, Uber and other companies call these drivers “partners” or “affiliates” and, at least in the San Francisco case, are trying to disavow liability unless the driver is actually going to an active call request at the time of the accident. The plaintiffs in the case (parents of the child who was struck and killed) are arguing that if the app is on and the driver is ready to receive a request, it is the same as when a taxi has its light on and the driver is already in the “course and scope” at that time.
- Insurance Issues: Individual drivers usually have insurance for their vehicle but, many carriers are trying to exclude coverage for people using their cars as ride share vehicles. If the individual insurance policy refuses to pay and Uber, Lyft, Sidecar or one of the other ride share companies claim they are not liable because the driver wasn’t actively trying to pick someone up at the time, this would leave the injured party or wrongful death victim’s family without a “pocket to collect.” In the case of the San Francisco wrongful death, this is precisely what appears to be happening. The driver was clearly not only negligent but, engaged in vehicular manslaughter according to the District Attorney’s office. In my mind, both he and his “employer” (Uber) should be held liable in a civil court for damages related to this incident.
Importance of seeking out legal advice when injured as a passenger in a ride share vehicle like Uber or Lyft:
The case clearly shows that there are tricky legal issues involved in the ride-share scenario. It is important for persons suffering bodily injury or the family of someone killed in a traffic collision involving a ride share driver to know that these issues are complicated and subject to current litigation to ferret out what the rule are and what they should be. Consulting with a lawyer familiar with these types of claims is crucial. Glotzer & Sweat, LLP has free legal consultations on any ride-share incident in California including Los Angeles and can be reached anywhere in California at our toll free #866-229-0101.