Can Uber be sued for the Kalamazoo shootings? We may find out!

The City of Kalamazoo and the entire State of Michigan are still in shock after the random shootings earlier this week.  The alleged perpetrator ("alleged" for legal purposes only even though he apparently has confessed to police) was an Uber driver and was apparently working on the day of the incident.  He apparently was even between fares when he committed at least one shooting.

This tragedy has called into question the screening procedures used by Uber, as well as other ridesharing companies.  It seems like anyone with a car and a cell phone can become an Uber driver.  The company has a "screening process," but really how rigorous is that process and what type of background check is made to allow someone to become a driver.  And, what types of checks are done once a person becomes qualified to driver an Uber to make sure that passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians are safe.  After all, these drivers are working for pay and driving all over to make a profit for the ridesharing company.

For the recent Kalamazoo tragedy, there are preliminary news stories that Uber had received "tips" or "complaints" that the suspect driver was acting erratically before and on the date of the incident.  If this proves to be true, the question is what, if anything, Uber did to alert authorities and take him out of service.  The driver took fares between shootings, meaning that Uber allowed him to continue on duty and pick up passengers despite these warnings.

If this is frightening to you, well it should be.  We are all told an at early age not to get into cars with strangers.  For some reason, there is a certain comfort level when you get into an Uber car, or even a taxi cab, as if there was some type of assurance of safety.  We assume the driver has been properly screened and a criminal history check was performed, but do we really know what was done to approve the driver to drive us in the vehicle.  And, what was done to insure passengers that the vehicle itself was properly maintained and safe for the roadway.

So, can the Uber victims and their surviving family members sue the company for the shooting?  Well, the answer is a not surprising "it depends."  Unfortunately, every case and lawsuit depends on the facts or factors involved in the incident.

Generally, under Michigan law, a company like Uber cannot be held liable for the criminal acts of its employees during the course of their employment.  There are some exceptions, such as when an employee is "required" to sue force for the job, like a bouncer or security guard that oversteps the bounds of acceptable conduct.  Another exception can be when the employer knew, or should have known, of the dangerous propensities of an employee but fails to act to protect the public.

In the Kalamazoo case, if witness statements and news accounts can be substantiated that Uber driver was working, and even between fares, when some of the shootings occurred then there may be a basis for a civil lawsuit.  If Uber had actual knowledge, or should have known, that its driver posed danger to the public and failed to act to prevent harm then the victims certainly can argue that the company should be held liable in a civil court for the injuries and death caused by the shooter.

The goal of a civil lawsuit is to hold a negligent party accountable for the harm caused to victims.  Another important purpose is to prevent similar incidents from happening to other innocent people.  Once more information is known, a determination should be made whether to file a lawsuit against Uber for the victims and surviving family members.  Ridesharing companies and other businesses must be held accountable for harm caused by their agents and employees, especially when they are holding them out to the general public as "pre-screened" and safe to get in their car and drive.

I suspect that civil lawsuits will be filed, and rightly so.  Families and victims seeking justice need answers and it is doubtful that Uber will make its screening processes and other methods public without court intervention.  Whether or not the cases will survive the scrutiny of Michigan law is something for the courts, but the only way to find out is to do a full investigation and put the courts to the test.  Maybe then, the public will at least know more about the drivers of these cars.  While many of us have had positive Uber experiences, there will certainly be some apprehension before getting into another vehicle.

Lawrence J. Buckfire
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