Who is Responsible for Uber or Lyft Accidents in California?

When a passenger or driver is injured in an Uber or Lyft accident, the amount of insurance coverage may depend on what the Uber or Lyft driver was doing at the time of the accident. An Uber or Lyft driver can have 3 different levels of liability limits in California, depending on whether:

  • The Lyft or Uber driver had a rideshare passenger or is picking up an accepted ride;
  • The Lyft or Uber driver was logged into the app and waiting for a passenger; or
  • The Lyft or Uber driver was not logged into the app and was driving on his or her own time.

When a Lyft or Uber driver causes an accident, liability may depend on whether the driver was considered an employee, independent contractor, or driving the car on personal time at the time of the accident.

The Lyft or Uber driver's status may also affect how much the injured drivers or passengers can recover for damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Vehicle accident injuries can result in losses for:

Damages in a motor vehicle accident can exceed the minimum insurance coverage limits for personal drivers. If the insurance limits are too low and the driver does not have enough financial assets, the injury victim may be left having to deal with the costs of the accident alone.

To help you better understand the law on ride-sharing accidents, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions:

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When a passenger or driver is injured in an Uber or Lyft accident, the amount of insurance coverage may depend on what the Uber or Lyft driver was doing at the time of the accident.

1. Who is responsible for a ride-sharing accident in California?

Responsibility for most car accidents in California is based on negligence. This includes car accidents involving a Lyft or Uber vehicle. If one driver was negligent in causing the accident, that individual is liable to the other injured drivers or passengers for damages.

In order to recover damages in a car accident lawsuit in California, the injured plaintiff has to prove:

  1. That the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. That the defendant breached such duty through negligence; and
  3. That the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's harm.1

The basic “duty of care” for drivers requires drivers to use reasonable care when driving a vehicle. Drivers have to watch out for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. Drivers must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. Failure to use reasonable care when driving is negligence.2

When a driver violates a California vehicle code that is intended to prevent injuries or accidents, the driver may be considered negligent per se (or presumed negligence). This creates a rebuttable presumption that the driver was negligent based on violating a law or statute.3

Examples of negligence per se in a car accident may include getting into an accident or causing a car crash while:

1.1. What happens if I was injured while riding in an Uber or Lyft?

Under California law, companies like Uber and Lyft are considered transportation network companies (TNCs). Passengers injured while riding as an Uber or Lyft passenger are generally covered by the ride-sharing company's commercial liability coverage.

Injured passengers may have a claim against their Uber or Lyft driver. However, passengers may also be covered by the rideshare company's $1 million commercial policy if the damages exceed the driver's insurance coverage.

If another driver caused the accident, the injured Lyft passenger or Uber rider would be able to file a claim against the at-fault driver. If the driver who caused the accident does not have insurance or is underinsured, the rideshare company's UM/UIM policy would generally cover the damages, up to the $1 million per accident limit.

What if I wasn't wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident?

Some people treat riding in a taxi, Lyft, or Uber differently than riding in a friend's car or getting behind the wheel of their own car, and don't wear a seat belt. However, failure to wear a seat belt could limit your chance to recover damages or reduce your damage award.

Failure to wear a seat belt can be an affirmative defense in a car accident claim. The driver who caused the accident can claim the passenger was negligent because he or she did not wear a seatbelt and the injuries caused by the accident would have been avoided or less severe if he or she had worn a seat belt.4

1.2. What happens if the Lyft or Uber driver caused the accident?

If a driver or passenger of another vehicle is injured by an Uber or Lyft driver, the injury victims would have a claim against the ride-share driver. However, liability, in this case, will depend on whether the Lyft or Uber driver:

  • Is carrying a passenger or going to pick up a passenger,
  • Turned on the app and is waiting for a passenger, or
  • Has no passenger and has not turned on the app.

This distinction may be very important based on the injuries involved. If the driver has not turned on the app, the accident would be treated like any other car accident. The insurance coverage would be limited to the driver's personal insurance coverage.

If the ride-share driver has the app on and is waiting for a ride, the contingent coverage may apply, with higher limits of $50,000/$100,000. If the driver has a Lyft or Uber passenger in the vehicle or has accepted a rider and is picking up the rider, the $1 million commercial coverage will kick in.

A Lyft or Uber driver may not be honest about whether he or she had the app on at the time. If you are injured in an accident with a driver with a Lyft or Uber decal or sign in the vehicle, talk to your attorney. They may be able to subpoena electronic records to determine whether or not the driver had the app on or the ride was active at the time of the accident.

1.3. Pedestrian and Bicycle Accidents Caused by Lyft or Uber Drivers

Pedestrian accidents or bicycle accidents involve a car also depend on which party was negligent in causing the accident. The major difference in these types of accidents is that the pedestrian or bike rider will generally suffer much more serious injuries, which can even be fatal.

Bike or pedestrian accidents involving vehicles may involve:

  • Lyft or Uber drivers failing to yield to pedestrians5;
  • Lyft or Uber drivers pulling over right in front of a cyclist; or
  • Lyft or Uber drivers opening a door directly in front of an approaching bike rider.

2. How much liability insurance does the ride-sharing driver have?

All drivers in California are required to have a minimum level of liability insurance. The liability limit depends on whether the vehicle is being driven for personal or business use. Liability insurance may be higher for commercial vehicles or common carriers than the limits for personal vehicle drivers.

The minimum liability insurance requirements for private passenger vehicles include:

  • $15,000 in damages for death or injury to any one person for any single accident,
  • $30,000 in damages to be divided among all people killed or injured in any single accident, and
  • $5,000 in damage to other vehicles and property.6

2.1. Ride-Sharing Periods

Lyft and Uber drivers may have different levels of liability based on what they are doing at the time of the accident. There are generally three liability limits that Lyft or Uber drivers may have when the rideshare driver:

  • Has a ride-share passenger in the vehicle or is picking up a passenger;
  • Was logged into the app and waiting for a passenger; or
  • The driver was not logged into the app and was driving on his or her own time.

Lyft or Uber Driver Status

Minimum Insurance Liability Limits

Has a ride-share passenger in the vehicle or is picking up a passenger.

Minimum $1 million in commercial liability and $1 million uninsured / underinsured motorist insurance.

Is logged into the app and waiting for a passenger.

Up to $50,000 per individual/$100,000 per accident/$30,000 property damage.

The driver is not logged into the app and not looking for or carrying a passenger.

15/30/5 minimum coverage (the same as for other personal auto insurance policies)

2.2. Driving with a Ride Share Passenger

When a request for a ride is accepted and during the trip, passengers generally have the greatest level of insurance coverage available if they are injured. When the Lyft or Uber driver accepts a request and until the time the driver drops the passenger off, the insurance coverage includes:

  • Third-party liability coverage, up to $1 million (for damage to any third party, including a passenger, another driver, pedestrian, or property) when the ride-share driver is at fault for the accident.
  • Uninsured or underinsured motorist bodily injury coverage, up to $1 million (for injuries or damages to the ride-share driver and passengers when another driver is at fault but does not have enough insurance to cover the damages.

2.3. Waiting for a Ride Share Passenger

When a driver has the ride-share app open and is waiting for a request (but not yet accepted a request), different insurance liability is in place. Lyft and Uber drivers are covered for their liability to a third party when the ride-share driver is at fault.

2.4. Driving on Personal Time

When the app is off, the driver is covered by their personal vehicle insurance. For most drivers, the minimum insurance coverage in California for personal vehicle use is the standard 15/30/5 minimums.

3. Who can I sue if I am injured in a California Uber or Lyft accident?

If another driver, non-rideshare passenger, pedestrian, or anyone else injured by an Uber or Lyft driver in California, the defendants will depend on who was responsible in the accident. The negligent driver is liable for damages. If the Uber or Lyft driver caused the accident, the injury victim would file a lawsuit against the Uber or Lyft driver.

However, because the injured drivers or pedestrians may not know the exact cause of the accident, the victim may end up naming all potential defendants in the case. Through the “discovery” process of the lawsuit, it may become more clear what parties were responsible for the accident, and if more than one party was responsible.

4. Is Uber or Lyft liable for damages in a ride-sharing accident?

If the driver caused the accident, the driver is generally liable for damages. Even when a driver is taking an Uber or Lyft passenger, the driver may still be liable for damages. The driver may be protected by additional insurance coverage through Uber or Lyft, but the driver is still liable to the injury victims.

However, Uber or Lyft could have direct or vicarious liability for the accident, depending on the accident and whether the driver is considered an employee.

4.1. Liability for the Driver's Negligence

Under California's “Respondeat Superior” laws, an employer is generally liable for the employee's negligence. In a rideshare vehicle accident, this could that the rideshare company could be held responsible for the employee/driver's negligence.7

However, Uber and Lyft driver's are generally considered “independent contractors,” for liability purposes. So-called “Gig Economy” and “Shared Economy” jobs are still evolving. The question of whether Uber or Lyft drivers are independent contractors or employees after an accident may change. Talk to your California automobile accident attorney about your case and whether the Uber or Lyft may be liable for their driver's actions.

4.2. Uber or Lyft Liability

Uber or Lyft could still share some of the liability for the accident. If the ride-share companies acted negligently in how they screen drivers or use their apps, the company may be directly liable for the victim's injuries.

The ride-share companies could be held directly liable if they failed to properly screen, train, or supervise drivers. The plaintiff could file a lawsuit against the employer based on negligent hiring, negligent training, or negligent supervision.8

Example: Sandy wanted to make some extra money as an Uber driver but she had two prior DUIs. Sandy applied anyway and was surprised that she was approved. Sandy had a couple of drinks before deciding to turn on her app. She picked up a passenger and got into an accident on the way, seriously injury the passenger. Sandy was arrested for a DUI.
Uber claimed there was a process error and that Sandy was never supposed to be approved. However, Uber may have been directly liable for negligently hiring or failing to properly screen applicants. Uber may be liable to the passenger for damages.9

There are laws in California against distracted driving, including operating a phone or device while driving.10 However, Lyft and Uber drivers often scroll or search through their phones while driving, creating a risk to the passenger and others on the road. If Lyft or Uber are aware of this risk or their app increased the risk of distracted driving, they may be partially liable for distracting the drivers which could cause an accident.

5. What damages can I recover after a ride-sharing accident in California?

The damages available in a ride-sharing accident would generally be the same as those associated with any car accident. Compensatory damages in an Uber-related accident may include:

In rare cases, punitive damages may also be available. However, punitive damages may be limited to cases of reckless injury, intentional injury, or fraud in covering up the accident. For example, if Lyft or Uber knew the company was negligent and tried to cover up their involvement, the victim may be able to claim punitive or exemplary damages.11

In a fatal car accident, the surviving family members may be able to recover damages from the loss of a loved one. Under California wrongful death laws, certain family members can file a claim for damages to cover:

  • Funeral and burial expenses,
  • Financial losses, and
  • Compensation for the loss of companionship and support.12

6. Are Uber and Lyft considered employees or independent contractors?

The question of whether Uber or Lyft drivers are considered employees or independent contractors depends on who you ask. Generally, these ride-sharing companies contend drivers are “independent contractors.” However, other say their duties make them more like employees.

When workers are classified as independent contractors, companies can save money on payroll taxes, benefits, and reduced liability. This can also allow companies to avoid state wage and hour laws and other employer-employee regulations. When a driver injures another in a car accident, calling the driver an independent contractor can help the company avoid liability that would follow if the driver was an employee.

Recently, the California Supreme Court changed the test for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. However, so far, this change only applies to wage and hour laws.

Since April 30, 2018, California adopted the so-called ABC test for determining worker classification. The ABC test presumes all workers are employees. However, a worker can be classified as an independent contractor if the employer establishes:

  1. That the worker is free from the control and direction of the employer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact;
  2. That the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity's business; and
  3. That the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.13

Currently, Lyft and Uber drivers are generally classified as independent contractors for the purpose of vicarious liability in California.

7. Can I get damages if I was partially responsible for the accident?

Under California's comparative fault or comparative negligence laws, anyone injured in a car accident can still recover damages even if they are partially to blame for the accident.14

Comparative negligence is a way to divide up liability between all parties. The plaintiff's damages will be reduced based on the plaintiff's own contributory negligence.15

In a car accident lawsuit, the plaintiff files a lawsuit for damages. If the defendant claims the plaintiff's own negligence caused or contributed to their own harm, a jury would determine how to divide negligence between the parties involved. The plaintiff's share of negligence would reduce the plaintiff's overall award for damages.16

Car accidents often involve multiple drivers blaming the other and other factors for causing the accident. Even non-driver causes of the accident may be partially to blame for an accident, including:

Example: Hubert is an Uber driver. Lyle is a Lyft driver who was speeding down a 25 mph road at 50 mph. While looking at his map, Hubert rolls through a stop sign without coming to a complete stop and hits Lyle in a t-bone accident. Lyle and all the passengers are fine but Hubert suffers neck injuries and has $10,000 in damages. Hubert files a personal injury claim against Lyle.
A jury determines both drivers were negligent. Lyle is 70% negligent for speeding and Hubert is 30% responsible for failing to come to a complete stop. Lyle may be liable to Hubert for $7,000 in damages (70% of $10,000 = $7,000).

8. Uber and Lyft Driver Accidents and Lawsuits

Uber and Lyft are still relatively new companies. Most car accident lawsuits are settled before they go to trial. The insurance companies representing Uber and Lyft may be requiring confidentiality language before agreeing to settlement offers. This makes it difficult to know how often Uber and Lyft vehicles are involved in accidents and the settlement offers Uber or Lyft are making to the victims.

Ride-share accidents in California include a growing list of companies, including:

  • Lyft
  • Uber
  • Waze Carpool
  • Summon
  • Sidecar

If you are involved in an accident with a ride-share company, talk to an experienced California car accident lawyer about how to get compensation to cover all your damages. You may also find helpful our article on lawsuits by victims of sexual assault by Uber or Lyft drivers.

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Injured in an Uber or Lyft accident in California? Call us for help...

For questions about who is responsible for your car accident injuries involving a Lyft or Uber driver or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California car accident attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Legal References:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 400. See also California Civil Code Section 1714(a), (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person…”)
  2. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 700 -- Basic Standard of Care, (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.”)
  3. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 418(a). See also California Evidence Code 669.
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 712 -- Affirmative Defense -- Failure to Wear a Seat Belt.
  5. California Vehicle Code 21960 VC.
  6. California Insurance Code 11580.1.
  7. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3701 -- Tort Liability Asserted Against Principal--Essential Factual Elements. See also Lisa M. v. Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital (1995) 12 Cal.4th 291, 296–297 (“The rule of respondeat superior is familiar and simply stated: an employer is vicariously liable for the torts of its employees committed within the scope of the employment.“)
  8. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 426 -- Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee. See also Doe v. Capital Cities (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 1038, 1054 (“California case law recognizes the theory that an employer can be liable to a third person for negligent hiring, supervising, or retaining an unfit employee.”
  9. Uber Fined $8.9 Million For Hiring Drivers With DUI, Felony Convictions. CBS Denver, November 20, 2017. (Colorado Public Utilities Commission fined Uber $8.9 million for “allowing individuals with disqualifying criminal or motor vehicle offenses, or without valid licenses, to drive for the company.” Drivers included those with convictions for DUI, DWI, and habitual offenders.)
  10. California Vehicle Code §23123.5 (“(a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.”)
  11. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3490 -- Punitive Damages. See also California Civil Code § 3294 (“(a) In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”)
  12. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  13. Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. S222732 (Cal. Sup. Ct. Apr. 30, 2018).
  14. Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3rd 804.
  15. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 406. See also Pfeifer v. John Crane, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1270, 1285 (“The comparative fault doctrine ‘is designed to permit the trier of fact to consider all relevant criteria in apportioning liability. The doctrine “is a flexible, commonsense concept, under which a jury properly may consider and evaluate the relative responsibility of various parties for an injury (whether their responsibility for the injury rests on negligence, strict liability, or other theories of responsibility), in order to arrive at an ‘equitable apportionment or allocation of loss.'”).
  16. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 405.

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