Uber's latest legal challenge, a wrongful death suit, should give passengers pause

An Uber screenshot

An Uber screenshot

At 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, a driver fatally hit 6-year-old Sofia Liu as she walked with her mother and brother in a San Francisco crosswalk. Car accidents happen all the time in major cities, but this is different: The driver was in between fares as a contractor for Uber. Liu's family this week filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the transportation app in California Superior Court.

Uber is no stranger to controversy and has been named in lawsuits before, but this is the first time the company has been cited in a wrongful-death suit. California requires Uber to cover its drivers with a minimum $1 million insurance policy under transportation network company regulations put in place last September. But the driver who struck Liu wasn't transporting an Uber passenger, and because Uber drivers aren't considered employees of the company, they're not exactly on the clock in between fares. The lawsuit is seeking an answer, at last, to a question that has followed Uber since its inception: What liability does the company have in a case like this?

Uber isn't alone in backing away from accidents with its hands raised high. Other, more traditional companies have taken the same stance. A Texas jury last year ordered Domino's Pizza to fork over $32 million when a delivery driver's bald tires led to a car accident that killed a woman and left her husband brain damaged. The company was also found liable because of its 30-minute delivery policy, which critics say encourages unsafe driving.

Attorneys for Liu's family are taking a similar approach in their suit against Uber, claiming that the company requires drivers to respond to ride requests quickly and have to interact with the app while driving to do so. The lawsuit claims Uber violates California's distracted driving laws. There are a few exemptions, namely for police officers and emergency responders, but not for transportation apps. This could be the sticking point that forces Uber to change its ways and pay up.

Uber's growing pains

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a lawyer, and I have used Uber's services in San Francisco and New York City. But as a journalist who covers the sharing economy, it's obvious why Uber would want to wash its hands of the driver entirely--which is basically what the company did, immediately deactivating his account following the accident. Rules and regulations for sharing economy companies are still being hammered out in states across the country, and Uber doesn't want to set a precedent for itself by claiming responsibility for its drivers.

But the driver in this case was actively scouring the streets for an Uber fare. While the company is trying to cover its own hide, this lawsuit is another example of how Uber doesn't really care all that much about its reputation. The company has been all over the news lately, fielding complaints on Twitter from users about everything from surge pricing during snowstorms to poaching drivers from competing ride-sharing apps, which Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently apologized for. Uber drivers are also suing the company for taking tips--the company doesn't allow users to tip, presumably because the tip is built into the fare price, but drivers say that portion isn't passed on to them.

Uber is storming ahead to break through in as many markets as possible but doesn't seem to care about the trail of PR messes it's leaving behind. On the same day Liu's family filed the wrongful-death suit, Uber launched a Super Bowl promotion in New York: on-demand halftime shows complete with marching band and cheerleaders. Talk about tone-deaf.

Uber has built a reputation for crashing into cities and upsetting the status quo, but it's not exactly a start-up anymore. It's time for Uber to grow up and take some responsibility.

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