Litigation Considerations Involving Transportation Network Companies

For anyone who maintains a litigation practice involving automobile collisions, one of the hottest topics is the use of Transportation Network Companies (TNC). These companies are more commonly known as Uber or Lyft, but there are others as well, and your state likely has them registered as doing business in your jurisdiction.

The way Uber and Lyft operate is that a potential customer/passenger opens up an application on their smartphone, and through the use of GPS positioning, requests that a driver in the area comes to pick them up. The passenger also inputs the address of their destination so that the driver knows where he/she is headed. The user receives a message when the driver arrives, gets in the car, and is dropped off at the destination of their choosing. All of this is accomplished within the smartphone application.

One of the most important issues for a practitioner is the question of liability coverage. This goes for any major automobile collision case. But this simple question is deceptively complex when we dig into the TNC regulations and requirements. So after you’ve asked your client and/or the defendant if anyone was operating or using a TNC at the time of the collision, the question becomes whether or not a “ride” or a “trip” was in fact underway at the time of the collision.

If your state has applicable regulations, the first place to look is the definitions. Key definitions include “pre-arranged ride” and “transportation network rider.” In Massachusetts, M.G.L. c. 159A1/2 defines a “pre-arranged ride” as the period of time that begins when a driver “accepts a requested ride through a digital network, continues while the driver transports the transportation network company rider and ends when the rider safely departs from the vehicle.” A “riders” is defined as a “passenger in a pre-arranged ride provided by a transportation network driver, provided that the passenger personally arranged the ride or an arrangement was made on the rider’s behalf.”

These definitions have an impact as they relate to the required insurance coverage. M.G.L. c. 175, section 228 (c) provides that a driver who is logged on to TNC’s digital network and is available to receive requests, but not engaged in a pre-arranged ride, only has $50,000.00 of coverage for bodily injury, $100,000.00 of total coverage for bodily injury and $30,000.00 of coverage for property damage. In contrast, section 228 (d) provides that when a TNC driver is engaged in a pre-arranged ride, the driver has $1,000,000.00 of total coverage for bodily injury, death, and property damage.

This area of litigation is new and certainly still developing, but the hypotheticals unspool easily regarding where the line could be drawn on when a pre-arranged ride begins and ends. If the driver doesn’t click the “start” button in the app, but the rider is loading their bags in the back, has the ride begun? If the rider has “safely departed” the vehicle, is unloading their suitcases and gets run over and killed, has the ride really ended? What if the rider forgets to start or end the ride within the app?

Is it fair that these differences in liability coverage exist insofar as they apply to pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers?

Inherent in the technology boom is the massive amount of available data. A TNC application on a smartphone includes information about who the driver and passenger are, GPS data about the location of where the ride begins and ends, as well as the route the driver takes, and feedback and user information (including ratings) about both the driver and the passenger. As you dig into the question of liability coverage, be sure to ask:

  • If anyone was operating and/or using a TNC
  • For all TNC app data (including GPS data) for the time period before, during and after the collision
  • For all insurance information of the TNC driver, including any underinsured/uninsured motorist coverage applicable to the pre-trip acceptance period

These are some of the baseline questions and considerations practitioners can apply in evaluating the liability insurance coverage of a TNC driver. I would anticipate a significant amount of litigation will develop around the question of exactly when a trip begins and ends.

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