Uber cannot be held civilly responsible for the killing of one its drivers by a passenger in Oxon Hill two years ago, the ridesharing company stated Friday in moving to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of the driver’s three fatherless children in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
In papers filed with the court, Uber said liability rests solely with Aaron Lanier Wilson Jr., who summoned the car driven by Beaudouin Tchakounte via Uber’s online Rider App procedure and then shot him to death at about 9:30 p.m. on a summer night in 2019.
Any “duty” Uber may have owed for its driver’s safety was rendered legally irrelevant by Wilson’s violent act because it was the sole cause of Tchakounte’s death, the company added in the dismissal motion it filed with its co-defendant and subsidiary, Rasier LLC, which contracts with Uber’s drivers.
Uber and Rasier “unequivocally deny that they owed any duty or breached any duty whatsoever,” wrote Uber’s attorneys from Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in McLean, Virginia. “In the event this court determines, however, that they had a duty to screen riders, and that defendants breached that duty, Mr. Wilson’s criminal acts are undoubtedly a superseding cause of harm that broke the chain of causation and plaintiffs’ claims must fail.”
In April, Wilson pleaded guilty 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.
Uber’s filing last week followed its earlier court submission arguing that its drivers are independent agents to whom it owes no legal duty — an argument that drew a sharp rebuttal from the children’s attorneys last month.
“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,” wrote the attorneys with Scarola Zubatov Schaffzin PLLC in New York and Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore. “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.”
In its reply, Uber held fast to its view that it owed no duty to its drivers and added that neither laws nor regulations nor custom have required the screening of passengers.
“(W)hile the ridesharing industry is heavily regulated, those regulations only apply to drivers,” Uber’s attorneys wrote.
“Plaintiffs do not cite, and cannot cite, to any reciprocal regulations for the screening of riders or other users of the technology, in Maryland or anywhere in the United States,” the attorneys added. “The fact that there are no such regulations or laws governing the screening of riders who use the Rider App or similar platforms strongly suggests that this was not intended to be regulated and furthers the presumption that there is no industry standard to do so.”
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.
Uber stated in its pending 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.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake has not stated 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.