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The car service company Uber makes money by selling car rides. Now the company is in trouble in San Francisco after a 6-year-old girl was killed by an Uber driver on New Year's Eve. The family has filed a wrongful death suit, claiming that the app that Uber drivers used to navigate and pick up passengers - in fact, the very business model of the company is to blame.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Aarti Shahani explains.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: A man named Syed Muzaffar drove for Uber. He lives in a suburb of San Francisco. And on New Year's Eve, he says, he was in the city for the sole purpose of picking up partygoers who needed a ride. His night ended early and tragically, around 8 P.M., when he turned a corner and hit a family in a crosswalk.
Police Sergeant Eric Mahoney is investigating the case.
SERGEANT ERIC MAHONEY: The mother sustained facial fractures and abrasions kind of over her body. The 4-year-old boy suffered abrasions on his face. And the 6-year-old girl was fatally injured at the scene.
SHAHANI: Last week, the surviving victims filed a civil lawsuit in California, saying that Uber is responsible for damages. Police are still investigating if the driver was using his Uber app, as he claims, and whether that played any role in the collision. But Mahoney says it's very possible. Drivers have to look at their smartphones constantly to see when there's a new request for an Uber ride and the customer's GPS location.
MAHONEY: It's easier to ignore a text from a friend until you stop. It's a lot harder to ignore a text when that's how you feed your family.
SHAHANI: Uber employees declined an interview. A company statement says while the man was an Uber driver, he was an independent contractor, not an employee. And he was not on the clock. The company's million-dollar insurance policy only kicks in when the driver has a passenger.
But lawyer Steven Clark, who is not a party in the suit, says there's a wide- open question.
STEVE CLARK: Why is Uber not responsible for that driver who was negligent?
SHAHANI: Uber uses social media to match drivers and passengers. And the company also asks drivers to hang out on the streets - especially during peak times like New Year's Eve - so they can respond to new requests quickly. Drivers even get rated by their response time.
CLARK: They are out there to derive economic benefit for Uber and for themselves. And therefore, if Uber shares in the profits, they should share in the responsibility.
SHAHANI: Another question the lawsuit raises is if Uber creates new risks on the road. Ride-sharing could be more safe than taxicabs because drivers get specific, named passengers. It could also be less safe because drivers have to keep checking their phones.
Kristen Gardner joined the ride-sharing industry a few months back.
KRISTEN GARDNER: I probably glance at my phone, kind of like a rearview mirror glance, about every six seconds or so. It's like rearview mirror, phone, road. Rearview mirror, phone, road.
SHAHANI: Uber is a darling in Silicon Valley, valued at about $4 billion. This one lawsuit is chump change. But Clark says it could set a new precedent that makes other social media companies suddenly responsible for background checks and damages. Whether it's a car-sharing service or a dating service like Match.com, a lot can go wrong.
CLARK: So if someone is injured or killed because they've met someone through a social media site and they've paid a fee for that, are the courts going to take this case and extrapolate it to liability in other types of social media business models?
SHAHANI: As the lawsuit works its way through court, Uber is racing to add new cities to its ride-sharing fleet.
For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco.
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