Who is Responsible for an accident in an Uber or Lyft?
In late 2017 ride sharing services Uber and Lyft finally arrived in the Capital Region of New York (Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Troy and surrounding areas).
The arrival of these services marked a significant change for residents of the cities and towns in the Capital Region. Now, through your smartphone, you are able to hail a ride in a matter of minutes, pay for that ride, learn about your driver and in fact leave that driver a review following the ride.
The arrival of ride sharing services should, of course, reduce both the number of drunk driving related accidents as well as the number of arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Generally speaking, reducing the number of drivers on the road should also reduce the number of accidents generally – statistics would support this.
But what happens when a ride sharing vehicle is involved in an accident? What recourse do the passengers have?
Liability of ride share companies for accidents
The founders of Uber and Lyft were smart. They created businesses around vehicles without actually having to physically own any vehicles. Their “service” is the software, which connects drivers of vehicles with those seeking a ride.
Because of this, Uber and Lyft have also possibly insulated themselves from liability when a driver is involved in an accident. To a degree.
Lyft and Uber vehicles are owned by the drivers, not the company. Generally, in New York both the driver and owner of a vehicle are liable for an accident where the driver failed to act with reasonable care in the operation of the car.
A classic example of this would be where an Uber driver runs a red light and the car is t-boned, causing injury to a passenger. In this scenario, the driver would likely be liable to the passenger for damages, just as if that passenger were injured riding in the car of a friend.
The insurance company for the owner of the vehicle would likely be on the hook for these damages, whether the case was settled prior to a lawsuit or after one.
Uber and Lyft could, however, find themselves in trouble in a couple of ways.
First, if a court determined (and this is an open question) that Uber and Lyft were employers of the drivers, the companies would likely be responsible for any negligence that caused an accident. There will likely be significant litigation over this issue over the next few years.
Second, potentially, is where the companies allow an individual to operate as a driver without performing a proper background check.
The most extreme example of this would be if Uber or Lyft permitted an individual to operate under the umbrella without confirming that the driver actually had an active driver's license. Say, for example, that driver's license had previously been revoked as a result of a third DUI arrest and conviction. If Uber had not run the proper background check, and the driver killed a passenger because he was operating his Uber vehicle while intoxicated, an argument could be made that the company should be held responsible for its negligence. In this case, the argument goes, the passenger relied upon the company to properly screen its drivers.
This same theory would apply in the case of an assault by an Uber or Lyft driver who had some sort of criminal history. In that case the passenger would argue that they reasonably relied on the company to perform a background check and screen its drivers for safety.
You may recall that Uber has had problems with this in the past – and was accused of performing insufficient background checks on its drivers. It's uncertain how much these checks have improved, but these are concerns that are not going away.
The bottom line
Ultimately, if you are injured as a passenger in a vehicle you should be protected by the insurance covering the vehicle, as well as any other vehicles that may be responsible for the accident. In cases of accidents involving multiple passengers, however, this can get sticky. This is because auto insurance policies typically have a “per occurrence” limit – which means that the company will only pay out a certain amount per occurrence or accident. If, for example, a policy has a $300,000 limit per occurrence, this may be the total amount available to all passengers, and in many cases, may not be enough.
For this reason, it is critical that if you are involved in accident in ride sharing vehicle (or any vehicle, for that matter) you consider speaking with an attorney. While it may seem harmless to wait, you could be doing yourself a disservice.
If you have questions contact us today. We're happy to help.