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Federal District Court Rejects Uber’s Attempt to Dismiss Complaint Based on Argument That Its Driver Was An Independent Contractor

Erik Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., et al.
(September 10, 2015) United States District Court for the District of Columbia

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2015cv0257-23

In a recent ruling, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected Uber Technology, Inc.’s motion to dismiss a complaint based on the argument that the driver who allegedly assaulted the plaintiff was not an employee, but an independent contractor. The Court did, however, grant Uber’s motion in part due to defects in the plaintiff’s complaint.

Uber is a company that provides a mobile phone application. In its own words, it is “a technology company that acts as a conduit between transportation providers and passengers.” A user can access Uber’s app to request transportation, and Uber will contact a driver to provide that service, set the fee for the transportation, and handle the payment of the fee to the driver (while retaining 20-25% of the fee for itself). On September 8, 2013, Plaintiff Erik Search and several of his friends used the Uber app to request transportation in the District of Columbia. A driver named Yohannes Deresse accepted their request, and picked up Plaintiff a short time later. Plaintiff alleged that Deresse began acting erratically in the car during the drive, and he and his friends decided to terminate the ride. Deresse followed them after they had exited the vehicle, and an altercation ensued in which Deresse stabbed Plaintiff six (6) times.

Plaintiff sued Uber in D.C. Superior Court, alleging that Uber was liable for the attack under theories of negligent hiring, training, and supervision, respondeat superior, apparent agency, and violation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act. In addition, Plaintiff asserted a cause of action for “gross negligence and punitive damages.” Uber removed the case to federal court, and then moved to dismiss on the grounds that Plaintiff had not alleged sufficiently particular facts to support his cause of action for negligent hiring, training, and supervision; that Deresse was not its employee, but rather was an independent contractor; and that the District of Columbia does not recognize a cause of action for “gross negligence and punitive damages.”

The Court granted, in part, and denied, in part, Uber’s motion. Addressing first the argument that Plaintiff had not alleged facts with sufficient particularity to support his cause of action for negligent hiring, training, and supervision, the Court agreed with Uber that Plaintiff’s allegations were conclusory. Plaintiff did not allege that Uber failed to conduct a background check in accordance with its established procedures, and moreover, he failed to allege that Uber’s background check procedures were not reasonably calculated to discover any “red flags” in Deresse’s past or that any such “red flag” even existed. As such, Plaintiff had failed to allege facts which would support a cause of action for negligent hiring, training, and supervision.

The Court disagreed, however, with Uber’s argument that, as a matter of law, Deresse was merely an independent contractor. As Plaintiff noted, Uber screens new drivers, dictates the fares they charge, pays drivers weekly, and imposes a number of standards of conduct and cleanliness on drivers upon a threat of termination for noncompliance, all of which indicate the existence of an employer-employee relationship. Moreover, Plaintiff alleged that Uber controlled the rate of refusal of ride requests, the timeliness of the drivers’ responses to requests, the display on vehicles of its logo, the frequency with which drivers may contact passengers, the drivers’ interactions with passengers (including how they accept tips and collect fares), and the quality of drivers via its rating system. These facts could support the conclusion that Uber exercised control over Deresse and, consequently, that Deresse was Uber’s employee.

Furthermore, the Court was not persuaded that the attack was clearly outside of the scope of Deresse’s employment. The Court noted that, under D.C. law, if an employee’s assault stems from a job-related controversy, it may fall within the scope of the employee’s employment. Here, the complaint alleged that assault arose from a dispute that apparently surrounded the business transaction that brought Plaintiff and Deresse together. Consequently, a factfinder could conclude that it occurred within the scope of Deresse’s employment.

With regard to Plaintiff’s claim of apparent agency, the Court was persuaded that a finder of fact could determine that Deresse acted with Uber’s authority. Importantly, the Uber app stated that Uber was “your personal driver,” that it “subject[ed] its driver to rigorous screening procedures,” and that it “continues to monitor” its drivers.

The Court also rejected Uber’s argument regarding Plaintiff’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act claim. Although Uber argued that the only service it provided was to connect a customer to a driver, and thus that it did not represent any quality of its service to consumers, the Court believed that the nature of the service Uber provided was ultimately a question for the factfinder to resolve. Furthermore, Plaintiff had sufficiently alleged that he was misled by Uber’s representation that its drivers were rigorously screened in order to ensure that they would not pose a danger to passengers.

Finally, the Court agreed with Uber that D.C. does not recognize an independent cause of action for gross negligence and punitive damages. Plaintiff could, however, potentially recover punitive damages related to his other claims under the appropriate circumstances. The Court therefore dismissed Plaintiff’s causes of action for negligent hiring, training, and supervision and gross negligence and punitive damages, but denied Uber’s motion to dismiss the other causes of action.


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