Protecting Uber Passengers Who Are Injured in an Accident

Car-service company argues riders are already covered by current $1.5M liability insurance; critics contend there are too many loopholes in coverage

New Jersey’s controversial quest to regulate new car services like Uber and Lyft currently envisions extensive background and fingerprint checks for the drivers, guidelines to prevent discrimination against passengers, and a permit system that would cost the umbrella company $25,000 a year.

But a group of attorneys is concerned the insurance requirements now included in the legislation, which is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the state Assembly, fail to adequately protect passengers if they are injured as a result of a crash during their ride. The measure requires drivers to insure themselves and their vehicle, but it doesn’t spell out how riders – especially those without auto or health insurance of their own – would be covered if they ended up with hospital or other medical costs.

The group, the New Jersey Association for Justice, urged lawmakers to amend the measure (A-3695/S-2179) to ensure passengers aren’t left to foot these healthcare bills. The Senate managed to approve a version of the bill earlier this month, but more than a dozen members chose not to vote.

An Uber spokesman fired back at the attorneys for what he termed as last-minute, self-serving objection. The company, the largest ride-sharing platform nationwide, said it already provides $1.5 million in liability insurance for each passenger trip in New Jersey – $500,000 more than is provided in other states and more than 40 times the minimum required for taxi drivers here.

Uber and Lyft, which operate through online signup systems, have been cited as revolutionary services for the ease with which they connect passengers with rides and for the potential earning power they can offer to drivers. But the companies have also been criticized for their hiring and contracting, and for undercutting traditional cab companies that can be subject to more severe regulations. (The company has been operating in New Jersey for several years, but has not faced regulations specific to its business model.)

The New Jersey proposal, sponsored by Assemblymen Joseph A. Lagana (D-Passaic), Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris), attempts to address a wide range of these concerns. It requires the company (not the driver) to get a $25,000 annual permit from the Motor Vehicle Commission and sign an agreement with the Department of Transportation agreeing to submit trip data; this information would not be considered a public record.

The bill calls for drivers to provide full disclosure on the fare system. It also requires the company – termed a “Transportation Network Company” or TNC in the legislation — to take a zero-tolerance stance regarding drug or alcohol use by these drivers and to adopt a non-discrimination policy to protect all drivers. Controversy has largely stemmed from the requirement that drivers submit to a full background check and fingerprinting, either through the attorney general’s office or using a company process the state has approved.

When it comes to insurance, the proposal requires the TNC, the driver, or a combination of the two to provide insurance coverage for the driver and the automobile, even if no passenger is in the car. And during a prearranged ride, the bill calls for $1.5 million for death, bodily injury, or property – but only for the driver.

“What happens when a passenger gets injured in a wreck?” asked attorney Michael Donahue III, the Justice Association’s president. “We’re just asking that New Jersey also consider the passenger’s health and safety.”

[related]If there is an accident and the driver is at fault, or partially at fault, Uber said the liability coverage would in fact pay for any injuries that befell the driver and the passenger. But if the driver is not responsible, the situation becomes more complicated, Donahue noted.

Under New Jersey’s no-fault auto-insurance system, he said insurance companies agree to pay the medical claims of the policyholder after an accident – regardless of who is responsible for the crash. This Personal Injury Protection extends to passengers as well; someone riding in the back of a car that got in a wreck would have their bills paid by their own insurance company, rather than the policy covering the driver.

But Donahue said this PIP coverage doesn’t apply in commercial vehicles, which include TNC services like Uber. And if an accident is caused by another driver, the $1.5 million liability policy wouldn’t apply, and passengers may be left scrambling – especially if they don’t have auto insurance or health coverage of their own to fall back on, he warned.

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer, however, called the current version of the bill a “crucial first step” to keeping ridesharing in the Garden State. (Uber and Lyft reportedly stopped working in Austin, TX, after a fingerprint law was upheld there.) The measure aligns with regulations adopted in nearly three-dozen other states and several municipalities, including Newark, the company said.

“It’s troubling that the trial lawyers’ are amassing an 11th hour attempt to line their own pockets through inflated coverage requirements — which would be well in excess of industry standards,” Ewer said late Wednesday. “We cannot allow these special interests to undermine the future of ridesharing in New Jersey.”

Ewer declined to release information on passenger injuries. While it’s unclear how frequently riders are injured, Donahue said that as a new and promising technology, services like Uber and Lyft are only going to grow over time. And the state needs to create thoughtful regulation to protect all those involved, he said.

“This is about safety,” he said. “And we’re trying to be proactive.”

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