Fatal Ride-Sharing Accident: A Discussion of Gross Negligence, Vicarious Liability, and Insurance Coverage

Uber Wrongful DeathIn an unfortunate accident that happened on New Year’s Eve, a driver of a popular ridesharing service, struck a six-year-old girl as she was crossing the street with her mother and brother in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Last week, the driver was arrested on charges of vehicular manslaughter, gross negligence, and failing to yield to pedestrians on a crosswalk. Today the first wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against the driver, and the company. The arrest raises questions on two important concepts in personal injury law: criminal negligence, vicarious liability, insurance coverage.

Criminal Negligence

When is an act a crime? In most criminal cases, the justice system prosecutes an individual who intended to do something that the government – either state or federal – has concluded is wrong. In other words, he must have a guilty mental state, or “mens rea,” when committing the criminal act. The concept of “mens rea” is used in the justice system because as a society, we believe that only those people that are morally culpable should be punished.

Being careless is not a crime. If you, for instance, unintentionally cause a car accident because you were not paying attention, and the person you hit suffers whiplash, you will probably not be held criminally responsible for the accident. You will be held responsible in civil court and have to compensate the victim for the harm you caused, but you will not go to jail. This is an example of negligent behavior.

There are, however, acts that are so careless that they rise to the level of criminal activity. If you act in a way that recklessly disregards a substantial unjustifiable risk, you have acted with the mens rea necessary to be held criminally accountable for your actions. This is called criminal negligence, or gross negligence. In the case of the ride-sharing driver that killed the girl, a judge will decide if the driver’s inattentiveness amounted to gross negligence.

Vicarious Liability

A second, more contentious, issue is whether the ride-sharing service can be held responsible for the acts of the driver. Although much will depend on the contractual relationship between the company and drivers that use the app, the general concept making employers liable for the actions of an employee is called vicarious liability. As discussed in a recent Forbes article, the distinction between ride-sharing services drivers being employees or independent contractors creates large legal implications.

Employers are vicariously liable for the negligent acts of employees if they are acting within the scope of their employment. If the action is not within the course of employment, then the employer will not be held liable. For instance, if a delivery company driver is speeding to deliver a package on-time because his supervisor pressured him to hurry, and the driver subsequently hits a pedestrian, the company will probably be held liable. If the driver commits spousal abuse at his home, however, the company will not be held liable. Vicarious liability can not only increase the compensation a victim may receive, but it can also change a company’s policy that has a deleterious effect on society.

Insurance Coverage

On a related note, whether the liability insurance coverage, which was required under the new regulations, is applicable to the accident remains unclear. As noted in a recent KQED blog post,

Under rules adopted last September, the California Public Utilities Commission requires ride-service companies to carry at least $1 million in liability insurance for their drivers. But it remains unclear just when that insurance is in effect.

Graham Archer, the attorney for Syed Muzaffar, the UberX driver involved in the fatal accident on New Year’s Eve, says his client had driven to San Francisco with the express intent of serving UberX users and had already completed one trip.

But although Muzaffar was logged in and awaiting another customer, he wasn’t on a call at the moment of the accident, so UberX does not consider him covered under its policy.

Thus the small distinction between waiting for a trip and actually driving a passenger on the ride service may prove to be an important one for liability insurance coverage purposes. For a more in depth discussion regarding insurance coverage and ride sharing services, check out our previous blog post on the topic.

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