Can Uber be held liable for the injuries and deaths caused by its driver Jason Brian Dalton?
(For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that he shot and killed six people while working for Uber)
The quick answer is probably not, unless the company was aware or should have been aware that he was a danger to others.
First, the shootings were intentional, rather than negligent, acts. The liability of a business for acts committed by an employee is generally limited to negligent acts committed by its employee while acting within the scope of his employment. Intentional acts are excluded, unless the employer knew or had reason to know that the employee was a danger to others.
Second, Dalton was an independent contractor, not an employee, and a business normally is not liable for acts committed by an independent contractor.
Nevertheless, with the advent of businesses like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, many states have enacted laws that require companies to provide at least secondary insurance coverage to compensate victims. Secondary coverage means coverage that kicks in when the driver’s primary coverage is insufficient, which it often is because most auto insurance policies exclude coverage for accidents that happen while the vehicle is being used for a commercial purpose. The states required secondary coverage since most people who drive for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar lack sufficient financial resources to cover financial losses out of their own pockets for their passengers and themselves.
Here is an example from 2014.
The New Yorker reported in November 2014,
Last New Year’s Eve, an Uber driver named Syed Muzaffar was driving his car in San Francisco while logged into Uber’s app for drivers when he struck and killed a six-year-old girl who was in a crosswalk with her mother and brother. The next day, Uber distanced itself from the accident, posting a somewhat terse message on its Web site that offered condolences but also noted that “this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system.” The statement was later updated to read, “The driver in question was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident.” The subtext, though, was that the accident wasn’t strictly Uber’s responsibility. While the company could have provided up to a million dollars in liability coverage if an accident occurred, this applied only to drivers who had a passenger in the car or were on their way to pick one up; the company later argued that it wasn’t liable for the girl’s death.
After the Uber accident, scrutiny of car-sharing companies in particular intensified. The family of the six-year-old victim sued Uber, and California state lawmakers started pursuing a bill to strengthen insurance requirements for companies like Uber and its rivals Lyft and Sidecar. Amid all this, the companies began expanding their insurance coverage for drivers. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law new requirements requiring that ride-sharing companies provide at least secondary insurance (which would supplement drivers’ primary coverage) from the moment the app is turned on, rather than only when the drivers have accepted or are transporting passengers. It also mandates certain levels of insurance coverage.
In conclusion, although the Uber business model is causing legislatures to pass new laws to provide insurance coverage for its independent contractor drivers and their passengers, little likelihood exists that Dalton’s victims and their families will be financially compensated for their deaths or injuries unless Michigan has a crime victim’s compensation fund.