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Uber Update: New Lawsuit Centers on App Use

The family of Sophia Liu, who was hit and killed on New Year's Eve in San Francisco by Uber driver Syed Muzaffar, 57, of Union City, is filing a wrongful death suit against the ride-sharing company. The lawsuit reportedly claims that the driver's use of the Uber app on his phone was a distraction and a contributing cause of the accident.

As I have mentioned before, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft require drivers to use an app to respond to fare requests from potential customers. These companies require drivers to use their respective apps in between rides, but they claim they do not provide insurance to drivers during these transitional windows. In the case of this accident, Uber has argued that Muzaffar was not actually providing an Uber ride at the time he hit Liu (Muzaffar's Uber account was immediately deactivated following the crash).

In my view, and the same may be true for the family's attorney, even if an Uber driver is between rides, if they are using the Uber app to get a fare then they are absolutely in the course and scope of their employment. If they are between rides but are using the Uber app when they hit and kill a pedestrian in a crosswalk, this status does not change. Uber should take some responsibility for the actions of its drivers, including Muzaffar.

In the state of California, we have several laws banning the use of cell phones while driving. Here's a refresher on the laws for drivers ages 18 and older:

  • It is ILLEGAL to operate a handheld cellphone while driving. (Exceptions: Emergency calls, calls made by operators of emergency vehicles, calls made on private property.)
  • It is ILLEGAL to cover both ears while talking on a hands-free phone, but drivers over 18 can use the speakerphone function on their cell phones.
  • It is ILLEGAL to text and drive. This includes composing and reading any text-based communication.

Uber may, to some extent, be encouraging its drivers to disregard the ban on texting while driving. If the only way to get an Uber fare is to manipulate a handheld cellphone, then this company's operations are not in keeping with our California laws. Of course, it's not just Uber drivers who are guilty here. Taxi drivers are also relying more and more on cell phones instead of two-way radios, and drivers from other ride-sharing services also use apps on their phones to get rides. Still, this terrible accident is the latest in a string of bad press for ride-sharing services. We'll see how Uber fares against this impending lawsuit.

Scott Righthand is a San Francisco accident attorney who is an aggressive advocate for pedestrian accident victims.

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