The family of a 6-year-old girl killed by an Uber driver on New Year's Eve in San Francisco filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Monday against the company and the driver.
The suit could become a test case for the liability of technology companies in the booming ride-sharing industry. It alleges that the driver of the vehicle - an Uber contractor - was logged onto the Uber app at the time he fatally struck Sofia Liu, and was waiting to receive and accept a ride request.
The company, which takes a cut of every ride booked through its system, declined to comment Monday. In the past, Uber has said the driver, 57-year-old Syed Muzzafar of Union City, was not providing services on the company's basic UberX system because he did not have a passenger with him.
The suit alleges that even if that is true, the user interface used by Uber drivers to find fares contributed to the death of Lui, along with injuries to her mother, Huan Kuang, and 5-year-old brother, Anthony Liu.
Because drivers must consistently interact with the Uber app to locate and pick up riders, the app violates a California law that seeks to cut down on distracted driving, the suit says. Uber drivers "must respond quickly to a user request for service by physically interfacing with the app thereby leading to distraction," the lawsuit states.
It said the practice runs afoul of the state vehicle code, which says, "A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving."
The family's attorney, Christopher Dolan, said Monday, "Uber shares in the profits of its drivers and it must also share in the responsibility for the harms they cause." He said Uber had denied insurance protection to cover the family and the driver.
The family is suing for wrongful death, negligent hiring and supervision, negligence with a motor vehicle and infliction of emotional distress. The suit asks for unspecified damages.
San Francisco police said the crash that killed Sofia Liu happened at 8 p.m. when Muzzafar, driving a Honda SUV, failed to yield to the girl and her mother and brother as they crossed Polk Street in a crosswalk near Civic Center.
Muzzafar was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, police officials said. He is out of jail on bail and has not been charged.
Uber said it deactivated him as a driver after the crash.
Dolan also represented the family of Oakland teenager Jahi McMath in its fight with Children's Hospital after the hospital declared the girl brain-dead.
Obviously the driver should be held responsible for this little girl's death, but do you think the company should be? If he were driving a standard taxi, the taxi service would be liable as his employer since drivers are considered to be "on the clock" whether they have a passenger or not. Uber is saying it should not be part of this lawsuit because this driver didn't actually have a passenger, so they don't consider him to be "driving for them" even though he was logged on and waiting for a call.