Not even a month into the new year and Uber has already been hit with a lawsuit. This time, however, it’s for something far more concerning than its previous legal troubles. On New Year’s Eve, an Uber driver struck and killed 6-year-old Sofia Liu as she was crossing the street with her mother and younger brother in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The driver, Syed Muzzafar, was logged on to the Uber phone app at the time of the accident, prompting the Liu family to file a wrongful death suit against the company. Sofia’s death has reignited the debate over how the mobile-based transportation industry should be regulated, and whether companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar should be responsible for the actions of their drivers.
So is this a case about the company’s product, or its employees? Technically, it’s about both.
Muzzafar was allegedly logged into Uber X, the lower-cost version of Uber’s service which allows drivers to use their own vehicles to pick up patrons. Christopher Dolan, the Liu family’s attorney, argues that because drivers must respond to user requests quickly, the app is defectively designed and leads to distracted driving in violation of California laws.
The suit also claims that Uber was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising Muzzafar. Dolan argues that Uber knew or should have known that their drivers could potentially use their app in way that is distracting and incur risk against other drivers and passerby. “Whether or not a fee-paying passenger is in the car,” he argues, “if the driver is on the app and GPS, they are providing a benefit to Uber and their use of the app creates an unlawful risk of distraction that leads to the very type of injury and death we see here.” Whether that argument will make its way to a jury is unclear, but it’s an interesting approach, that’s for sure.
Last year the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring commercial liability insurance (minimum $1 million of coverage per incident) regardless of whether the employee/driver is personally insured. Some say this added a layer of security for passengers and bystanders, but as law professor Joseph Lavitt told SF Gatez: while the rules require Uber to have insurance when drivers are in transit to or during trips arranged through the app, “they don’t clarify whether other job-related activities like checking on fares are included.”
As a first year law student I’ve spent countless hours reading cases and learning about how legal rules are adopted, and how they evolve. Today it’s becoming clear that even narrow rules with a limited scope are still ridden with ambiguity as mobile technology changes rapidly, and new business models emerge overnight. In clarifying the scope of existing rules in our data-driven society, the court faces the task of creating new laws by weighing relevant public policy, and sometimes even theoretical considerations. These considerations are, by nature, based on assumptions of what might happen once a rule is adopted. The problem is that it’s becoming harder to even make those assumptions, let alone verify them, in such a rapidly changing industry. The Liu case highlights these issues and it will be interesting to see what arguments make their way to trial and which ones get thrown out.
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