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Uber denies legal duty owed to Maryland driver killed by passenger

Company seeks dismissal of wrongful death lawsuit

A man leaves the headquarters of Uber in San Francisco in 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

The San Francisco headquarters of Uber. The company says it has no legal responsibility in the matter of a Maryland driver who was killed by a passenger in 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Ridesharing company Uber’s courthouse denial of legal responsibility for their drivers’ safety drew a strong response Tuesday from attorneys for the three children of an Uber driver killed by a passenger in Oxon Hill in 2019 and who are suing the company for wrongful death.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the attorneys stated that Uber breached its “duty of care” to Beaudouin Tchakounte, who was shot to death at about 9:30 p.m. on a summer night in 2019 by Aaron Lanier Wilson Jr., who had requested a ride via Uber’s online procedure.

The attorneys countered Uber’s arguments — in its pending motion to dismiss the lawsuit — that its drivers are independent agents and the company cannot be held liable for the unforeseen acts of “third party” passengers.

“This case involves the abdication of a duty of care by a multibillion-dollar ridesharing company to the drivers who are the backbone and sine qua non of its business,” the children’s attorneys wrote in opposition to the dismissal motion. “Here, Uber breached its duty of care to Mr. Tchakounte by failing to use either the safety measures it already had in place to screen out dangerous drivers (to protect its passengers) or the enormous body of data about its riders it has amassed and uses to screen dangerous passengers for the safety of drivers.”

Wilson pleaded guilty last month in Prince George’s County Circuit Court to having killed Tchakounte and fellow passenger Casey Robinson on Aug. 27, 2019. Wilson was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The children filed the lawsuit against Uber Technologies Inc. in October with their mother, Carole Tchatchoua. The case is being litigated in federal court based on the damages sought exceeding $75,000 and the diversity of state residency between the Frederick family and the San Francisco-based company.

The complaint alleges that the danger posed to drivers by Uber’s failure to screen passengers is compounded by the pressure the company places on drivers to accept passengers without question. For example, drivers who decline ride requests risk being moved to the bottom of Uber pickup assignments in busy areas, such as airports, the complaint claims.

The children and their mother are being represented by attorneys from Scarola Zubatov Schaffzin PLLC in New York and Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

Uber, which denies the allegations, stated in the motion to dismiss that it owes no duty because it is merely in the business of helping customers seeking transportation link up with drivers, in the same way other smartphone applications help customers seeking food delivery link with restaurants and those seeking lodging link with innkeepers.

Uber “developed the Driver App and Rider App to facilitate the connection between those in need of transportation services with those willing to provide transportation services,” wrote the company’s attorney, Kathryn A. Grace, of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in McLean, Virginia.

“This does not alter Uber’s business from software to transportation and there is no serious argument, nor can there be a serious argument, to the contrary,” Grace added. “By plaintiffs’ standard, every technology platform like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, DoorDash, or Airbnb or any business (especially those that are part of the gig economy), would have to investigate and scrutinize every individual who uses those company’s platforms, products, or services, and every individual who allows others to use their accounts for such services because of the remote possibility of criminal acts. The law simply does not recognize this standard, nor is there any support for such a duty.”

In response, the children’s attorneys said the potential danger Uber drivers face sets the company apart from other technology platforms.

“Matching restaurants and diners through does not result in putting two complete strangers in a small, enclosed space with one having his back to the other to operate a vehicle,” the lawyers wrote. “Even delivery workers for Instacart, Grubhub and DoorDash do not have strangers enter their cars, but merely drop off grocery and food deliveries to end users.”

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake did not state when she will rule on Uber’s motion to dismiss.

The case is docketed at the District Court as Carole Tchabert Tchatchoua v. Uber Technologies Inc., No. 1:20-cv-3028.

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