Uber is the new black. Just download the Uber app on your smart phone and it will “connect you with a driver at the tap of a button”, according to the Uber webpage. An Uber driver will appear out of nowhere, having almost instantly obtained your location from his or her Uber drivers’ app. No cash exchanges hands — the rider’s “fare” is paid automatically through his Uber online account.
Uber essentially connects freelance, self-employed drivers with anyone needing a ride in major cities, including New York City. It now operates in 26 countries and 50 cities. But at least here in the U.S. sticky questions are coming up about Uber’s liability for crashes its drivers might cause.
For example, just recently in San Francisco an Uber driver hit a 6-year-old in a cross-walk, killing her. The victim’s family has just filed a wrongful death suit against not only the driver, but Uber as well.
The legal problem with this in New York, and elsewhere, is that normally there are only three proper targets for a lawsuit where negligent driving is to blame: The negligent driver, the owner of the vehicle he was driving, and, if the driver was employed and on-the-job at the time of the crash, the employer.
But there’s the rub. Uber claims it is not an “employer” of the Uber driver, but rather that the drivers are independent contractors who, owning and caring for their own vehicles, choose to participate in Uber’s driver-rider matching service. Uber compares itself to the auction site eBay, connecting a buyer and seller (driver and rider) and not liable for what happens between them. It thus washes its proverbial hands of liability for any accidents.
There’s a problem with this logic, though. Uber may be the next Ebay, but Ebay doesn’t have the same capacity to kill and maim its users. Uber does because it could screen drivers based on their driving records. Also, what happens when an accident is caused by an Uber driver looking down at his Uber app to confirm where and when to pick up a rider? Or what if the driver runs someone over while pushing a button on the Uber app to confirm an assignment? In such cases, shouldn’t Uber be held liable for distracting the driver?
The issue is coming to a fore because the company is becoming wildly popular in big cities all over the world.
Here’s the rule I would espouse: Uber should be held liable for failing to screen for safe drivers and for any accidents caused by its drivers’ use of its Uber app. Uber is in the best position both to screen its drivers and to enforce safe uses of its app. Such a rule will make Uber drivers safer and protect all of us. Beyond that, Uber should not be held liable for mere Uber driver error. It should, however, require its drivers to have the same amount of commercial liability insurance as cab drivers in the cities where they operate.
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Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
michaels-smolak.com Central New York Auto Accident Injury Lawyers
Michaels & Smolak, P.C.