Uber Eats Driver Fatally Shoots Customer in Atlanta: Can Uber Be Held Liable?

On February 17, 2018, an Uber Eats delivery driver fatally shot Ryan Thornton, a 30 year old Atlanta resident. The Uber driver, Robert Bivines, had just delivered an order from a local restaurant to Thornton when shots rang out. The details of the incident are not clear at the moment, but local news reports indicate there may have been some sort of disagreement about the delivery being late. After some words were exchanged, Thornton was shot. 

Bivines had only been driving for Uber for about a week at the time of the shooting. The local Atlanta newspaper found that Bivines was charged with aggravated assault in DeKalb County in 2009 and pled guilty to a lesser charge of battery in 2010. Uber drivers are subject to a background search. However, Bivines' criminal record would not have disqualified him from driving for Uber because convictions more than seven years old do not disqualify someone from becoming an Uber driver.

Other High Profile Incidents Involving Uber Drivers

While the circumstances of Thornton's fatal shooting are alarming, this is not the first time that an Uber driver has been in the news for a serious crime. The website Whosdrivingyou.org tracks incidents involving Uber and Lyft drivers and includes serious motor vehicle accidents involving deaths, as well as assaults, sexual assaults, and kidnappings. The number and severity of incidents are disturbing. For example, in 2017, a Florida Uber driver punched a customer after a disagreement about the route the driver was taking. The customer later died from the serious injuries he sustained.

In 2016, Uber settled two lawsuits brought by two different women in two states who claimed that their Uber drivers sexually assaulted them. In the lawsuits, Uber argued it could not be held responsible for its drivers' actions becuase the drivers are considered independent contractors.

In 2017, two unidentified women filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Uber in California to challenge the company's poor driver screening process. The woman charged that Uber's insufficient background check procedures led to thousands of women being harassed or sexually assaulted.

Are Uber Drivers Employees or Independent Contractors?

The question of whether Uber can be held liable for the actions of its drivers almost always depends on whether the drivers are employees or independent contractors. In Georgia, as in many states, employers are vicariously liable for the wrongful acts of their employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior. On the other hand, employers are generally not liable for the wrongful acts of their contractors. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, it is difficult to hold an employer liable for the wrongful acts of a contractor. 

Georgia courts have utilized ten factors when deciding whether someone is a contractor or an employee. Those factors are: (1) the extent of control the employer may exercise over the details of the work; (2) whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; (3) whether or not the work to be performed is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specailist who needs no supervision; (4) the skill required in the particular occupation; (5) whether the employer supplies the tools and place of work; (6) the length of time for which the person is employed; (7) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job; (8) whether or not the work to be performed is part of the regular business of the employer; (9) whether or not the parties believe they are creating an agency relationship; and (10) whether the employer is or is not in business. The most important factor that courts generally rely on is the control factor. If the employer has the right, or exercises the right, to control the time, manner, and method of performance of the work, then an employer-employee relationship will usually be found to exist. 

Uber, and other rideshare companies such as Lyft, contend that their drivers are independent contractors. Naturally, Uber does not want its drivers to be employees because Uber would have to provide them with more benefits if they were employees, and it would also result in Uber being held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees when they do something wrong. 

Lawsuits around the country have tried to challenge that designation by contending that drivers are employees, and as a result, they should be provided all the benefits employees are entitled to receive under the law. In two class action lawsuits filed in California, Uber and Lyft drivers challenged their designation as contractors. The drivers argued they were employees, and therefore, they were entitled to more benefits under the law. The judges presiding over the cases denied the rideshare companies' requests to dismiss the lawsuits and concluded it was for the jury to decide whether the drivers were employees or contractors. After the decisions, the companies settled the lawsuits.

The Insurance for Uber Drivers Likely Will Not Cover the Shooting

Even though it is difficult to hold Uber liable for accidents involving its drivers, the company does provide insurance coverage up to $1,000,000, depending on when the accident occurs. If the accident occurs during a ride, for example, the company provides insurance of $1,000,000 to cover the liability of its driver, and $1,000,000 in uninsured motorist coverage for passengers in the event a third-party driver is at fault and does not have enough insurance to pay the injured passenger's damages. 

Unfortunately, the insurance available for motor vehicle accidents likely will not provide coverage for the fatal shooting of Thornton. This is because insurance  policies for auto accidents, like the policy Uber carries for its drivers, generally only provide coverage for accidents resulting from the ownership, maintenance, or use of a covered automobile. In addition, almost all insurance policies exclude coverage for intentional acts, such as intentionally shooting someone.

In conclusion, this most recent incident is just one of a number of high profile incidents involving Uber drivers behaving badly. This fatal incident again higlights one of the dangers presented by rideshare services that have little to no contact with the drivers they put out on the roadways and into close contact with customers. These companies try to use the laws to avoid responsibility for the acts of the very same drivers that make money for them. Thortnon's death was tragic enough. It would be even more tragic if Uber was allowed to escape any responsibility for one of its drivers shooting and killing a customer. 

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