The family of a 6-year-old girl who was allegedly run down by an Uber X driver in San Francisco on New Year's Eve sued the ride-sharing company on Monday, in the first wrongful death suit against the company since its inception.
The suit is on behalf of the family of Sofia Liu, who was killed at the intersection of Polk and Ellis streets by driver Syed Muzzafar, 57, of Union City. Muzzafar was working for Uber on Dec. 31, but he had no passenger in his car at the time of the crash, around 8 p.m. Byt the suit claims that because he was logged onto Uber's app, he was indeed working for the company.
Muzzafar was arrested on vehicular manslaughter charges and posted bail shortly after he was taken into custody. Muzzafar also had a driving record in Florida from 10 years ago.
Uber has since “deactivated” Muzzafar.
San Francisco police said Muzzafar failed to yield for Sofia, a graduate of Wu Yee Lok Yueh preschool, and for her mother, Huan Kuang, and brother, Anthony Liu, as they had a green light and crossed the street in a crosswalk near the Civic Center.
Uber did not offer any new comments on Monday. But the company reiterated a previous statement, denying responsibility, saying that Muzzafar wasn't technically an Uber driver at the time because he had no passenger in his car:
We can confirm that the driver in question was a partner of Uber and that we have deactivated his Uber account. The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident. We again extend our deepest condolences to the family and victims of this tragic accident.
But according to the suit, because drivers must consistently interact with the Uber app to find and pick up riders, the app violates a California law that seeks to cut down on distracted driving.
Cab companies have to meet something called the "common carrier" princple, which holds them to a higher standard for transporting passengers. That means that they have to conduct background checks on their drivers and have a commercial insurance policy covering their cars. It also means that it's "much easier to collect in a lawsuit" if people are injured in a cab instead of a friend's car, according to NBC Legal Analyst Steven Clark, in an interview with NBC News.
Uber doesn't have to meet that standard and requires drivers to buy their own commercial insurance — except in California, where the Public Utilities Commission has said that it's not necessary.
"The company is pretty much set up to try to avoid this lawsuit," Clark told NBC News. "They call their drivers independent contractors — basically, you get in an Uber car at your risk — because nobody is responsible for them."
The Liu family is claiming wrongful death, negligent hiring and negligence with a motor vehicle, along with emotional distress.
“Uber shares in the profits of its drivers and it must also share in the responsibility for the harms they cause," said the Liu family attorney, Christopher Dolan. "The use of the Uber app. by drivers violates California laws designed to eliminate driver distraction. Drivers are constantly interacting with their mobile devices creating a serious risk to both passengers and the community.”
The San Francisco County Superior Court suit comes upon the heels of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's move to slash fares on Uber X, cutting prices below taxi fares.
Taxis are regulated to promote public safety, and taxi companies provide professional drivers who receive mandatory training in vehicles that are routinely inspected and insured whether carrying passengers or not.
Dolan, the Lius' attorney, recently made headlines representing the family of Jahi McMath in December.
In that case, he successfully fought in court to move the 13-year-old brain-dead girl from Children's Hospital in Oakland to an unnamed care facility, where her mother wanted her to stay on a ventilator because her heart was still beating.