As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle,the family of a 6-year-old girl killed by an Uber driver on December 31, 2013 in San Francisco has filed a lawsuit against the driver as well as the company, claiming that use of the fast-growing online app violates California’s distracted-driving laws. The wrongful-death suit could weigh heavily in the debate over how companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar in the growing ride-services industry should be regulated – and to what degree they should be held liable for their drivers’ actions.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that the driver of the vehicle – who was at that time an Uber contractor – was logged on to the company’s UberX app when he fatally struck Sofia Liu and was waiting to receive a ride request. The company, which takes a cut of every ride booked through its system, declined to comment. In the past, Uber officials have said the driver, 57-year-old Syed Muzzafar of Union City, was not providing services on the company’s basic UberX system because he did not have a passenger with him.

The suit calls this a narrow view of how companies like Uber do business. Christopher Dolan, the Liu family’s attorney, said the phone-based interface that drivers use to find fares contributed to the death of Sofia, along with injuries to her mother, Huan Kuang, and 5-year-old brother, Anthony Liu. Dolan said Uber had denied insurance protection that would have covered the family and the driver.

Because drivers must interact with the Uber app to locate and pick up riders, the app violates a California law that seeks to limit distracted driving, the suit says. Uber drivers “must respond quickly to a user request for service by physically interfacing with the app, thereby leading to distraction,” the lawsuit states. It said the practice violates the state vehicle code, which says, “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.” State law allows some drivers to use heads-up displays in their vehicles, such as those used by police officers and paramedics, but there is no such exemption for ride-sharing. An Uber driver must tap a screen at least once to accept a fare.

At a news conference, Dolan said his lawsuit sends a “message to the industry” that its reliance on mobile devices while driving is fundamentally flawed. “It’s their technology. They need to make it safe,” he said, suggesting that a hands-free mode would bring their businesses into compliance. Stephen Sugarman, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said drivers can remain compliant with California driving laws simply by pulling over before they check their phones.”I’m sure Uber will say that our policy is that you don’t look at your cell phone while driving,” Sugarman said. “It’d be crazy if they didn’t have a policy against driving around looking at your cell phone.”

Uber, which four years ago began pairing freelance drivers with riders who want to bypass traditional cabs, now operates in more than 50 cities worldwide. The California Public Utilities Commission has claimed control over Uber and other ride-sharing services. Last year, the commission began requiring the companies to carry commercial liability insurance, regardless of whether the driver is personally insured. The law mandates a minimum $1 million of coverage per incident.

Many believe such regulation goes a long way toward protecting riders and minimizing legal uncertainties. But Joseph Lavitt, another law professor at UC Berkeley, says ambiguity may remain in the new regulations. While the rules require Uber to have insurance when drivers are “in transit to or during trips arranged through the Uber app,” the rules don’t clarify whether other job-related activities like checking on fares are included, Lavitt said. “A rule should sufficiently address those ambiguities,” he said. “This (issue) may come down to a factual dispute about what the driver was doing.”

The suit by Sofia’s family claims wrongful death, negligent hiring and supervision, negligence with a motor vehicle, and infliction of emotional distress. The suit asks for unspecified damages. Dolan said the girl’s mother had spent weeks in a hospital and may never regain full use of her eye after reconstructive surgery. San Francisco police said the crash that killed Sofia occurred at 8 p.m. when Muzzafar, driving a Honda sport utility vehicle, failed to yield to the girl, her mother and brother as they crossed Polk Street in a crosswalk. Muzzafar was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, police officials said. Muzzafar’s attorney, Graham Archer, said that his client is “absolutely distraught” over the accident. He said he was disappointed with Uber’s effort to distance itself from Muzzafar. Uber said it deactivated Muzzafar as a driver after the crash.

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