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States warn consumers about possible insurance gaps with rideshare companies

A dozen states have warned consumers about potential insurance problems with so-called “ridesharing companies,” saying it is unclear who is on the hook when drivers dispatched by firms like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft get into accidents.

Idaho was the latest state to warn consumers about potential insurance gaps in the new industry, which uses apps to help drivers find fares and customers find rides. Although the companies say they are not the drivers’ employers, and simply take a cut from the fares, that claim may not survive litigation.

“Potential gaps in insurance coverage for both drivers and passengers is concerning,” said Idaho Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal.

Passengers of the companies must agree to hold the companies harmless for anything that happens on the trip, according to waivers. But if a driver dispatched by one of the companies causes a serious accident and does not have insurance, it is unclear who is liable. An injured rider may not be covered, they say.

The companies claim they are simply tech companies that facilitate rides and fares and are protected by the Communications Decency Act. The drivers they work with do not appear to be their employees, and, like all motorists, are required to have insurance.

But in a serious or even fatal accident involving millions of dollars of damages, the companies could be targeted by lawsuits. Already, one such suit is targeting Uber as well as a driver whose policy has a $750,000 limit. In that case, a private taxi driver, considered by Uber to be a "partner," not an employee, collided with another car in San Francisco in a wreck that sent a fire hydrant flying through the air. The woman the hydrant struck was badly injured and is suing.

According to Uber officials, the company has created an insurance plan that will pay up to $2 million per accident for cases involving its “peer-to-peer” plan, in which ordinary folks are matched up with others who need rides.  Lyft and Sidecar have $1 million policies.

Uber officials, in a post on the company’s site, said they vet drivers to ensure they have safe records and adequate coverage.

“From the time a driver accepts a trip request through our app until the completion of the ride, our partners have $1 million of coverage for driver liability,” read the statement. “We were also the first ridesharing request service to include $1 million of coverage for uninsured/underinsured motorists, meaning that passengers and drivers are also covered for injuries when another party is at fault and lacks sufficient insurance.”

Still, in lawsuits like the one involving the fire hydrant, Uber claims it is not liable for an accident caused by a driver it dispatched. Critics say the companies are no more insulated from lawsuits than owners of taxi cabs or even pizza chains whose drivers cause accidents.

“Uber is trying to distance itself from any liability, instead calling itself a "modern day phone book" of drivers that simply connect people but has no responsibility when accidents occur,” the San Francisco-based personal injury firm of Bostwick & Peterson states in a message on its web site. “However, because Uber does connect people legal analysts assert that it should be treated more like a taxi company and be held responsible for risks Uber creates.”

California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee have all previously warned consumers that they could potentially face liability for accidents cause by drivers they hire.

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