Lawsuits Against Ride & Bike Sharing Companies
by, Erin Fitzgerald, JD, of Lexicon Legal Content
Twenty years ago, Lyft, Uber, and Citi Bike were misspellings, not multimillion-dollar transportation enterprises. “Ridesharing” was the morning carpool, and “bike sharing” conjured images of tandem rides through the park. Today, millennials are summoning Ubers and unlocking bikes, but changes to how consumers get around haven’t changed how often users are injured in car and bike accidents. What they have changed is the legal landscape for recovering compensation after a ridesharing injury. Ridesharing companies hide behind independent contractors, and insurance companies eagerly deny commercial liability coverage to personal vehicles. Attorneys must adapt their theories of recovery against ridesharing companies to avoid these legal pitfalls and recover needed compensation for their clients.
Ride and bike-sharing accidents often result from oversights in the operator and/or vehicular vetting processes. Major ride and bike-sharing companies may be liable for these negligent oversights, but holding them accountable often requires expert assistance from experienced civil engineers to human resource experts.
EXPERTS FOR NEGLIGENT HIRING LAWSUITS AGAINST RIDESHARING COMPANIES
Most common law jurisdictions recognize the independent torts of negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, and/or negligent training as companions to respondeat superior liability. Case law such as Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 128 F. Supp. 3d 222 (D.D.C. 2015) highlights the nuances faced by practitioners when suing ridesharing companies. Popular ridesharing companies utilize independent contractors to provide services, and this system traditionally insulated the primary contractor from liability for injuries caused by the independent contractor. However, many jurisdictions have stretched the tort of negligent hiring to include the negligent retention of an independent contractor.
Liability for negligently hiring an independent contractor requires proof of a master-servant relationship and evidence that the primary contractor did not take reasonable care during the hiring process. Factors weighed in this balance include:
The skill required for the occupation
The distinction of the occupational itself
Analysis of payment methods and fee structures
Ownership of the tools (vehicle, phone, license) necessary for the task
The inherent dangers of the task itself
The license and training requirements in the industry
Testimony from transportation industry specialists, such as human resource professionals and occupational experts, establishes these baseline skills and tools. The reasonable standard of care for hiring a surgeon, for example, differs from the reasonable standard of care for hiring a taxi driver. Ridesharing companies may be liable for negligent hiring if they failed to conduct a thorough criminal background and driving records check and/or ignored obvious red flags during the vetting process.
PRODUCTS LIABILITY CLAIMS AGAINST TRANSPORTATION TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES
Strict products liability claims against ride and bike-sharing companies take two main forms: direct lawsuits for dangerous application design and lawsuits related to equipment failures. Some lawsuits allege that the ridesharing applications themselves are dangerous products because they require drivers to utilize their phones while operating their vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that distracted driving due to cell phone use is one of the leading causes of car accidents in the United States. Strict products liability may attach to ridesharing applications if the design was inherently defective (unreasonably dangerous) and that the defect was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Proving that an application (or the specific function employed at the time of the accident) is inherently defective often requires expert testimony from road safety, application development, and behavioral science experts.
More traditional products liability claims, such as negligent bicycle maintenance or failure to certify vehicle safety, are also cognizable against ride and bike-sharing companies. Defective or poorly maintained vehicles offered to the public directly or through an application may form the basis of personal injury litigation. Similar to negligent hiring claims, mechanical and design experts must establish the necessary standard of care during products liability litigation. Expert testimony may also establish proximate cause between a mechanical failure and the injuries alleged to prove or apportion liability.
MARKETING DEFECTS (FAILURE TO WARN) CLAIMS AGAINST RIDE-SHARING COMPANIES
Failure to warn claims may act creative alternatives to negligent hiring claims. The most common example is when a ride-share company thoroughly vetted a driver, but that driver subsequently assaulted a passenger. Some attorneys have argued that the apparent authority given to ride-share drivers combined with corporate safety assurance can impose vicarious liability on ride-share companies for criminal assault. Failure to warn users of non-obvious dangers inherent in ridesharing may also sustain a products liability claim.
Plaintiffs using ridesharing applications as intended have sued the designer/owner for failure to warn of known but non-obvious dangers. Obvious dangers, such as involvement in a car or bike accident, seldom form the basis for failure to warn claims against ridesharing companies. However, non-obvious dangers, such as vulnerability to sexual assault from fake ride-share drivers, may result in corporate liability. Uber® was sued under this theory when fake drivers bearing its logo impersonated summoned drivers and subsequently assaulted multiple women utilizing Uber’s application. This unique fact pattern negated any vicarious liability or negligent hiring claims (the drivers were impersonators) but formed cognizable failure to warn claims because the danger was (1) not obvious and (2) Uber had notice of these impersonators. If experts testify that the ridesharing company had notice that such assaults occurred with statistical relevance and failed to warn vulnerable users of this danger, claimants may have a viable marketing defect claim directly against a ride-share developer.
CONNECT WITH QUALIFIED CIVIL ENGINEERS AND RIDESHARING EXPERTS THROUGH GUIDEPOINT
Whether litigating under a theory of negligent hiring, respondeat superior, or products liability, expert testimony is essential for establishing industry standards and statistical relevance during ride and bike-sharing litigation. Consulting with vetted subject-matter experts in the ridesharing industry can focus your claims and increase the viability of these non-traditional pleadings. To learn more reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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