Using ridesharing companies in Chicago may bring unforeseen risks

On behalf of Valerie Leopold

Unsettled law in Illinois means ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft may not have adequate safety measures or insurance coverage

In Illinois, common commercial carriers such as the CTA, Metra, Amtrak, taxicab companies such as Yellow Cab and Flash, must carry adequate insurance and have licensed and trained drivers or operators. The law requires these regulations because these companies are being paid to transport people. We expect these companies to have highly trained professionals and to have insurance to be able to pay for passenger injuries if the company or its driver is at fault.

The same important safeguards are not presently required for many rideshare companies in Chicago such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. In fact, this November, Governor Pat Quinn vetoed a bill that would have regulated many of these ridesharing companies and the drivers who represent them. Among its provisions, the bill would have forced drivers who worked more than 20 hours per week to obtain a chauffer's license. It also would have forced ridesharing companies to conduct background checks on its drivers, even if part-time, as well as conduct drug screenings. Shortly after the veto, Uber announced it would hire an additional 420 workers in Chicago by 2016.

As a result, the ridesharing industry remains largely unregulated, and the legal and safety issues surrounding such companies are by no means settled. On December 3, a House committee approved new legislation aimed at similarly regulating rideshare services. The new bill includes modified insurance requirements. The bill's sponsor, Representative Mike Zalewski, has also promised to work with ridesharing companies as the bill moves forward. Uber had opposed the previous bill.

Insurance coverage and liability concerns

Chicago does have an ordinance on the books that attempts to regulate ridesharing companies, although outspoken critics of the ordinance, including the city's taxi drivers, feel the ordinance is too lax. In May, the City Council approved an ordinance sponsored by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel that created a tiered licensing system for rideshare drivers based on the number of hours worked per week. Drivers averaging 20 hours per week must obtain a Class A license and must undergo background checks, vehicle inspections and pay a $10,000 license fee. Drivers who average more than 20 hours a week must pay a $25,000 license fee and undergo more stringent vehicle inspections and background checks. Regardless of the number of hours worked, ridesharing companies operating in Chicago must also now have $1 million in commercial auto liability coverage per occurrence. The ordinance (9-115-090) became effective in August.

Despite the new ordinance, the safety of ridesharing companies is still under question. On Tuesday, December 9, Chicago Police were investigating allegations a driver had sexually assaulted a passenger, for example. And whether Chicago's ordinance is enough to protect rideshare passengers is still up for debate.

Employees or independent contractors?

Even less clear is the employer/employee relationship between a rideshare driver and the company that pays them. Ridesharing companies are careful to designate their drivers as contract workers. Such a designation can have significant legal consequences. This past summer, for example, Uber claimed it was not liable for the death of a pedestrian caused by a driver who had just activated his Uber app for drivers. In Uber's response to the lawsuit, it claimed that the driver was "never an employee, agent, joint venture or partner of Uber" and Uber was therefore not responsible for actions of the driver, who had turned on his app but was "in between" passengers at the time of the accident. Since the driver was in his own car, the question of whether the driver was "on call" at the time of the accident is significant in the case.

Standard of care and legal liability important in an accident

Standard taxicab services, buses, and other common carriers have a large history of regulation and case law that determines the legal standards that apply when an accident occurs. The law has long held that common carriers - transportation vehicles that carry the public - have a duty to exercise the "highest degree of care consistent with the type of vehicle used in the practical operation of its business." (Rotheli v. Chicago Transit Authority). The "L" Train and buses carry thousands of Chicagoans every day; professional drivers must be aware of this and drive with safety always in mind.

The standard of care for common carriers is above that of other drivers. A driver or operator may be liable if he or she is driving while sleep deprived, intoxicated, distracted, or otherwise performing job duties without adequate regard to safety. The driver and the company which employs that driver are liable for any resulting injuries.

Injured in an accident involving a common carrier?

As you can see, there are many complicated legal issues that occur following an accident where a common carrier is involved. The law is rapidly evolving as these additional unregulated carriers become more prevalent. While it can be a nice convenience to have many transit options available in Chicago, complications can arise in the unfortunate event of an accident. Residents of Chicago and surrounding areas who have been in an accident with a ridesharing company or common carrier should speak to the experienced attorneys at Leopold & Associates to discuss their legal options and get help recovering for their injuries.

Keywords: Car accidents, bus accidents, common carriers, Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, liability, personal injury lawsuit