The question of whether those who drive for ride-hailing companies like Uber are employees or independent contractors has always been a controversial one. Companies that are app-based have long argued that the gig workers upon whom they rely are not their employees.
When workers are classified as employees, companies have greater responsibilities to them – and for any harm they cause. But what makes someone an independent contractor instead of an employee?
The ruling last month by a Philadelphia judge lent credence to the argument that Uber drivers are employees and that the company has some liability for their drivers’ negligence and actions. The case involved a lawsuit against Uber by the estate of a man who died after a driver allegedly dropped him in a dangerous spot. The plaintiffs claim that while the driver is liable, Uber has vicarious liability for “negligent hiring, supervision and retention” of the driver.
Was the driver an independent contractor or employee?
The judge denied Uber’s request for a motion for summary judgment that would have prevented the case from going to trial. It claimed that because the driver was an independent contractor, it couldn’t be held liable for his negligence. As evidence, the company pointed to the driver’s agreement with the company, in which his non-employee status was spelled out.
The plaintiffs argued that this wasn’t sufficient to make the driver an independent contractor. They pointed to the fact that the company had the power to terminate the employee as well as other authorities held by employers over employees.
The broader ramifications of the ruling
The ruling not only affects this case but a host of others against Uber and its competitors. Any attorney for the plaintiff called it “an important step towards undoing the fiction that Uber and other rideshare competitors are merely technology companies that do not employ drivers and should not be held responsible for their negligence.” That’s particularly true when a company is alleged to have vicarious rather than direct liability.
People often assume that they’re automatically insured by Uber if they order a ride. That’s not the case. As this case shows, the company can and will fight those who seek to hold it responsible for its drivers. If you or a loved one has been harmed or worse due to a rideshare driver’s actions or negligence, it’s crucial to have legal guidance on your side as soon as possible to protect your rights.