Accidents Involving An Uber Driver

With the rise of cell phones, the way in which Americans access individualized transportation has changed. A Taxi used to be the fastest, easiest way to get transportation, even if in an unfamiliar city. Today, Uber has taken that mantle and become the go-to means to finding quick transportation. But what happens when you are injured while in an Uber car? This answer was clear in the older, taxicab company model: the driver was an employee and the company was an employer, meaning recovery could be sought from the company itself. Uber is a bit different. Below is a brief overview of how compensation from injuries can be pursued when an individual is injured in an accident involving an Uber driver.

How Does Liability Attach In A Car Accident?

Every driver owes a duty of reasonable care to other drivers on the road, to passengers—of both that driver and of other vehicles—and to pedestrians. This generally means that the driver must act in a reasonable and careful manner while driving. A driver breaches this duty by acting carelessly, such as using a cell phone while driving or speeding. If this carelessness causes an accident and injury to another, the driver is liable for those injuries. This concept is called negligence. When these elements—duty, breach, causation, and injury—are present, the injured individual can bring a claim for negligence to recover monetary damages.

The fact that one driver involved in an accident is an Uber driver will not alter these elements. The Uber driver will be personally liable (likely through personal car insurance) for his negligent acts. Additionally, a passenger in an Uber car will still be able to bring a claim for negligence against another driver the causes a collision with the Uber car. These well-established principles will handle most accidents involving Uber drivers. However, Kansas only requires drivers to carry insurance covering $25,000 for injuries to another and $50,000 total liability for a single accident. This means that in accidents where an individual is seriously injured, the personal insurance of the drivers may not be sufficient to compensate for injuries suffered. For these types of accidents, it may be necessary to get to large, commercial insurance policies or assets of the employer, Uber.

How is Uber held responsible for a driver that causes a Car Accident?

The true answer to this question, as it stands today, is “it may not.” However, courts, including those in Kansas, are tasked with applying current laws and legal principles to new situations every day. Still, with the Uber driver’s own personal insurance covering must accidents, many courts have not had to examine traditional means of applying liability to an employer in the context of Uber. Two cases from federal courts, Doe v. Uber Technologies, Inc. and Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., have touched on these issues with varying results. Below are a few theories discussed in these cases that may allow for liability to reach Uber.

Respondeat Superior

An extremely long-standing and well recognized means of attaching liability to an employer is through respondeat superior. This legal doctrine is based on the idea that if an employer is allowed to benefit from the actions of its employees, it must also answer for the wrongs done by those employees. The key to establishing this type of liability is showing that driver was an employee, rather than an independent contractor, and that the driver was acting within the course and scope of her employment. In Uber cases, drivers will almost always be acting in the course and scope of their employment in accident cases: the employees are hired to drive patrons. Much less clear is whether Uber drivers would be found to be employees under the doctrine. It is important to note that what employers call a driver is not determinative, so the fact that Uber insists to its drivers and the public that Uber drivers are independent contractor does not resolve this question. As recently noted in Knorp v. Albert, the court will determine whether a driver is an employee or independent contractor. The court looks to a number of factors, but the most important is how much control the employer is able to exert over the driver. Though Uber put forth several examples of how much freedom its drivers had (ability to choose hours, decline customers, etc.) in the Search case, the court there ultimately found the driver to be an employee under the laws of the District of Columbia. The court focused on Uber’s ability to set the rate charged by the driver, punish the driver for declining too many customers, and assessing performance of the driver (albeit through customer ratings only). These factors would likely play out similarly in a Kansas court, but as the law stands today, it is unclear if this form of vicarious liability would attach in Kansas.

Common Carrier Liability

Kansas law imposes a heightened standard of care upon common carriers, such as buses and trains. This means that common carriers must be more careful than regular drivers to avoid negligence claims; any deviation for the highest standard of care practices with operating the business is enough for liability to attach. Kansas currently holds taxi cabs to be common carriers, as noted in King v. Vets Cab, Inc. Based upon the clear similarities, it is highly likely Kansas would apply this heightened standard of care to Uber drivers. This means that a passenger in an Uber car can likely recover from both drivers in an accident, as the Uber driver would have to be perfectly innocent to escape liability to its passengers.

Negligent Hiring

Negligent hiring is an independent claim brought against an employer. As such, it doesn’t matter whether the driver is determined to be an independent contractor or employee. The key is that the employer failed to exercise reasonable care in hiring the driver. For this to be shown, the employer must have known or should have known (by conducting a background check or other reasonable search) that the driver was unfit for the assigned task. In the Doe case, the passenger was assaulted by her Uber driver, who had two prior convictions of sexual assault when he was hired by the company. The court found that this could constitute negligent hiring, because these convictions would have been produced by a simply search of court records. The same principle can be applied to traffic accidents: if a potential driver has several tickets or egregious offenses, such as a DUI, it would likely not be reasonable to hire the driver to transport passengers. Determining if negligent hiring exists is a very fact intensive inquiry based on each case. It is also worth noting that Uber has, since the events in Doe, begun performing background checks on potential drivers, reducing the likely success of negligent hiring claims today.

If you have been injured in a car accident involving an Uber driver, these complex and unsettled issues may arise in your case. Because of the uncertain nature of this area, it is especially important that experienced and successful legal counsel be retained. This ensures that you have the best chance of receiving the full redress for your injuries.

The answers to the above questions are derived from the following two cases below are summaries of each:

Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 128 F. Supp. 3d 222 (D.D.C. 2015).

This case arose from the stabbing of Plaintiff—a customer using Uber in DC—by the Uber driver Plaintiff had summoned. Id. at 227. Following the stabbing, Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant based upon a theory of negligent hiring and negligent training; respondeat superior; and apparent authority. Id. at 228-29. The court ultimately found that Plaintiff had not established a claim for negligent hiring or negligent training. Id. at 231. The court found that Plaintiff may have a valid claim for liability based upon respondeat superior. Id. at 234. The court also found that a claim for apparent authority may also be valid. Id. at 236.

Plaintiff in this case summoned an Uber driver while in DC. Id. at 227. A driver accepted Plaintiff’s request and picked up Plaintiff shortly thereafter. Id. Once in the vehicle, the driver began acting strangely. Id. This led Plaintiff to exit the vehicle early and walk away from the vehicle. Id. The driver also exited the vehicle and began shouting at Plaintiff. Id. The driver then pulled a knife and stabbed Plaintiff six times. Id.

For the first issue, the court noted that employers are “bound to use reasonable care to select employees competent and fit for the work assigned.” Id. at 229. So long as an employer conducts a reasonable investigation into an applicant’s background and provides adequate training, there is no liability. Id. at 230. Here, Plaintiff could not identify anything in the driver’s background or training that would have placed Defendant on notice of the driver’s violent tendencies. Id. at 231. Without such facts, there could be no claims for negligent hiring or negligent training. Id.

The next issue dealt with respondeat superior, a doctrine that holds an employer responsible for the acts of an employee. Id. For this doctrine to apply, the individual must be an employee—rather than an independent contractor—and the act must be performed within the scope of employment. Id. Though Defendant labels its drivers as independent contractors, the court was not convinced. Id. at 233. There were sufficient facts to show that Defendant exercised a fair amount of control over its drivers, including the ability to determine what to charge for services, how much work a driver must do, and the conditions of the vehicle which the driver uses to complete the work. Id.

To fall within the scope of employment, the task can be assigned or can grow out of a job-related controversy. Id. at 234. Here, the driver and Plaintiff only came into contact because of the driver’s position with Defendant. Id. The fact that Plaintiff had terminated the business transaction did not sever the scope of employment; the incident still arose from a job-related controversy. Id. The decision would ultimately be left to the jury, but there were sufficient facts to allow Plaintiff’s claim to survive for the time being. Id.

The final issue was whether apparent agency could make Defendant liable for the actions of the driver. Id. Apparent agency exists when an employer placed the employee “in such a position as to mislead third persons into believing” the employee is acting on behalf of the employer. Id. at 235. Defendant in this case had proclaimed in several advertisements, including the mobile app itself, that Defendant subjected potential drivers to “rigorous screening procedures.” Id. These promises suggest that Defendant has a significant amount of control over its drivers, even if that is ultimately found to not be true. Id. Thus, Plaintiff was allowed to assume that such control existed and his claim under the apparent authority doctrine was proper. Id. at 236.

Doe v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 184 F. Supp. 3d 774 (N.D. Cali. 2016).

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.