Can Uber Be Held Responsible For Acts Of Its Drivers?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Doe v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 184 F. Supp. 3d 774 (N.D. Cali. 2016).
This case addresses the following issues:
Can Uber be held responsible for acts of its drivers under the theory of respondeat superior?
Do Uber and its drivers qualify as “common carriers” under the law?
Can Uber be liable for negligent hiring or negligent supervision?
This case was brought by two customers that suffered sexual assaults by their Uber drivers. Id. at 779. The Plaintiffs put forth three theories of liability against Uber for the acts of the drivers. Id. Ultimately, the court found that a claim based upon respondeat superior could be viable against Uber, despite the companies claim that drivers are independent contractors, not employees. Id. at 785-86. Both Uber and its drivers may qualify as common carriers, and the enhanced liability that follows such a finding attaches to them. Id. at 787. Finally, Uber could be liable for negligent hiring or negligent supervision under appropriate facts that Uber knew or should have known about a driver’s tendency to commit assaults on passengers. Id. at 788-89.
Plaintiffs were both young females that used Uber’s app to get rides. Id. at 779. Rather than simply driving the Plaintiffs to their location, each driver took his passenger to a secluded area and sexually assaulted her. Id. The drivers had histories of sexual assaults, including criminal charges and arrests. Id. at 780.
The first issue was whether respondeat superior could apply to Defendant, which turns on two factors. Id. at 781. First, the offending party must be an employee of the defendant. Id. Unlike an independent contractor, an employee is subject to the control of the employer, particularly concerning “the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.” Id. The second part of the test is whether the acts are “incidental to the operation of defendant’s business.” Id. at 785.
In this case, despite Defendant insistence and classification of the drivers as independent contractors, the court was not convinced enough to dismiss the lawsuit. Id. at 783. Defendant determined what its drivers charged, it could punish drivers for failing to accept sufficient work, and it reviewed driver performance through customer reviews. Id. This looked like sufficient control to find an employee-employer relationship. Id. Further, the drivers clearly used their position with Defendant to gain access to Plaintiffs. Id. at 785. Though these actions didn’t directly benefit Defendant, it was “only because of [the driver]’s affiliation with Uber” that they had access to Plaintiffs. Id.
The second issue was whether or not Uber constituted a common carrier. Id. at 786. A common carrier is an entity that offers to “transport goods or persons from place to place for profit.” Id. A common carrier owes both a heightened duty of care (the upmost care) to its passengers and is vicariously liable for its employees, regardless of whether such actions are taken in furtherance of the employer’s interests or not. Id. The court easily found Defendant to fall into this category, as Uber’s business is undisputedly one of transporting the public. Id. at 787.
The third and final issue was whether Defendant could be liable for negligent hiring or negligently supervising the drivers. Id. at 788. An employer is liable for “the behavior of an unfit employer” where the employer “knew or should have known that hiring the employee created a particular risk or hazard and that particular harm then materializes.” Id. The main issue in these cases was that Defendant used insufficient background checks on its drivers. Id. Because of these insufficient checks, Defendant was unaware of previous complaints or convictions concerning assaults by these drivers. Id. The court found that a jury could find such searches insufficient, and the court would not dismiss the claims. Id. at 789.
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