Kalamazoo Shooting Should Give Politicians in Lansing Pause Over Uber’s Request for Corporate Immunity

After the Kalamazoo Shooting, Uber should not receive any special treatment by our legislature

Michiganders everywhere are reeling from the news of the horrific Kalamazoo shootings that occurred over the weekend. The scope and brazenness of this tragedy strikes all of us to the core. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

Did Uber take the proper precautions?

Law enforcement officers are working feverishly to piece together the details of what occurred on that awful Saturday night. uber-driver-michiganOne component of this investigation is how the killer’s status as an Uber driver played into the Kalamazoo shooting. Important questions are being asked by law enforcement and the families of the victims. Was there something in the killer’s background that would have been a red flag, saying he should not have been driving for Uber? Did Uber properly respond to the alarm sounded by one of its customers at 5:30 PM, hours before the murders, that this man was driving crazily through Kalamazoo?  Did Uber properly monitor the killer’s activities as he drove around Kalamazoo shooting innocent people? How is it that Uber allowed the killer to pick up another customer after he had murdered six people?

These are important questions that deserve comprehensive answers. Those answers may show that this was yet another unforeseen, random act of heinous crime. But those answers could also reveal that Uber could have done something more to prevent the tragedy or minimize its scope.

Will Uber Continue to Hide Behind the “Independent Contractor” Label?

Yet what many people do not realize is that Uber has been building a legal wall around itself—a wall that works to prevent Uber from having potential corporate accountability. Since its inception, Uber has insisted that its drivers are “independent contractors” and therefore not employees of Uber. This point is critical to Uber’s business model because it means that Uber cannot be held liable for the acts of its drivers, and it does not have to pay most traditional employer expenses. And Uber has spent vast sums of money defending this principle in courts around the country.

For example, when an Uber driver ran over a six-year-old girl in San Francisco, Uber said it was not responsible for the girl’s death because the driver was “in between trips.” Recently, a federal judge sided with a group of Uber drivers who argued that by treating them as independent contractors, Uber was denying them benefits that are traditionally afforded to employees.  The federal judge held that Uber drivers were not properly classified as independent contractors and thus could pursue a class action against Uber. But Uber has vowed to fight this ruling, claiming that treating its drivers as independent contractors is a core tenant of its business model.

Pending Bills in Lansing, Michigan Would Codify Uber’s Lack of Corporate Responsibility

What’s more, Uber has asked politicians around the country to adopt laws that give Uber special treatment by codifying its lack of corporate responsibility.  Ironically, this debate is presently pending in Lansing. A package of bills (known as HB 4637, 4638, 4639, 4640, and 4641) are pending in the Michigan Legislature. These bills would make it law in Michigan that Uber drivers are independent contractors and that Uber is not in control of its drivers. The bills already passed the House of Representatives and are now stalled in the Michigan Senate.

What’s radical about these bills is that they treat a $50-billion dollar, California tech company differently than other Michigan employers. For example, by making drivers independent contractors, Uber avoids having to pay workers’ compensation benefits. That means that when Uber drivers are injured on the job, the cost of their medical care is pushed onto auto no-fault or health insurers. And by insulating Uber from corporate liability, these bills eliminate the incentives for Uber to make its technology as safe as possible. If history has taught us anything about consumer protection, it’s that the threat of liability forces companies to make their products safer.

When it comes to public safety, perhaps the only sliver of good news from this tragedy is these bills have not yet been made law. The least that the Senate and Governor can do now is to put these bills aside and allow the investigation into the Kalamazoo murders to continue. The families of the victims deserve answers to their questions. Again, those answers may prove that no one could have predicted or prevented this unspeakable tragedy. But until those answers are given, the families deserve to know that no one corporation is being given special treatment by our legislature.

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