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Car service company faces wrongful death suit

A California family is pursuing a civil suit against car service smartphone app company Uber after a driver who worked as an independent contractor for the company hit and killed their six-year-old daughter in an intersection. The driver was not presently carrying a passenger on behalf of Uber at the time that the accident occurred, but the family argues that since he had the application open on his screen and may have been looking for passengers that Uber should be responsible.

This case implicates a variety of complex legal theories, starting with the question of whether Uber could be responsible at all for an independent contractor’s negligence. This typically falls under a theory of agency law, which requires that the negligent party be an employee operating in the course of their job in order to hold the employer liable. The general rule is that a company hiring an independent contractor is not liable for their negligence since they do not exercise control over the manner in which the independent contract fulfills their duties.

However, in this case the line is fuzzier, since drivers seeking to work through Uber must use an app-based interface on a smart phone in order to locate and connect with passengers. This means that they must have a screen up in their car and visible when they are driving, which could be a violation of California’s distracted driving laws. At the same time, it is not clear if the Uber process requires drivers use it while they are in motion, or if drivers have a reasonable option to pull over and stop their vehicles while they locate passengers and set their GPS coordinates. 

Source: Associated Press, "Uber sued for wrongful death of 6-year-old San Francisco girl," Terry Collins, Jan. 27, 2014

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