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.
Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 128 F. Supp. 3d 222 (D.D.C. 2015).
This case addresses the following issues:
Can Uber be liable for negligent hiring or negligent training?Can Uber be held responsible for acts of its drivers under the theory of respondeat superior?Can Uber be liable for acts of its drivers under the theory of apparent agency?
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.