Ride-Sharing Services Take-On Liability Balancing Act

Ambulance rides in the U.S. are expensive. The most recent data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed they can range from $224 to $2,204. Recent figures suggest ambulance bills can be as high as $3,500 and depending on your insurance plan, you could be footing the entire bill. For some patients, even when experiencing a non-life-threatening illness, calling an ambulance is the only option because they lack transportation. To avoid these high costs, people are turning to ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to get to the hospital for a fraction of the price, according to a new unpublished study. This option might actually be beneficial in non-life-threatening situations. However, individuals who use ride-sharing services for serious emergencies simply to save money could raise serious liability concerns and leave drivers asking themselves whether this is in their job description.

Uber and Lyft discourage drivers from transporting individuals to the hospital. In an attempt to shift liability away from the company, Uber has published statements such as “Uber is not a substitute for law enforcement or medical professionals. In the event of any medical emergency, we always encourage people to call 911.” But this is easier said than done when an individual gets into the car and time is of the essence. While some drivers consider these trips as good deeds, others simply feel obligated to transport these individuals to the hospital. The bottom line is ride-sharing drivers are unequipped to deal with emergency health situations. Ambulances are equipped with comprehensive medical technology and life-saving devices, whereas even the most hospitable Uber drivers may offer candy and a phone charger. Even when a customer gets into a Lyft seemingly healthy, drivers are still taking on the risk if the customer’s condition takes a turn for the worst before reaching the hospital. In one instance, a woman whose destination was the hospital got into the car seemingly healthy, only to request the driver to pull over minutes into the ride to get sick on the side of the road.

So, what happens if a customer’s condition worsens as a result of opting for an Uber or Lyft over an ambulance? Attorneys argue that it is unlikely someone would bring suit against an Uber driver for not providing adequate medical treatment because fault would be difficult to prove, and the driver may not be equipped to pay a large settlement or damages. In addition, it is difficult to sue the ride-sharing company directly through employer liability because drivers are hired as independent contractors, so the company is able to shift liability away from them. However, attorneys are recently taking a different approach against these companies, arguing that the drivers were acting as the company’s agent, and therefore the company cannot avoid liability. Attorneys argue that drivers really don’t have control over their individual ride-sharing business. Rather, ride-sharing companies control fares and impose guidelines for how drivers should conduct business before, during, and after rides. If the drivers do not conform, they receive warnings and ultimately risk termination. Since ride-sharing companies do not want the issue of whether drivers are independent contractors or agents decided in court, they settle with the customers that bring suit.

Despite arguments against calling an Uber over 911 in the event of a life-threatening emergency, ride-sharing services are still finding avenues to enter the health care stage. Uber recently launched a new initiative, Uber Health, designed to increase patient access to reliable transportation to doctor appointments. Missed appointments are unfortunately common in the U.S., with 3.6 million Americans missing or delaying appointments due to a lack of reliable transportation. These missed appointments cost the health care system $150 billion annually. The Uber Health dashboard allows healthcare providers to schedule rides for their patients to and from appointments. In addition, the platform is completely HIPPA-compliant, so patient confidentiality is preserved. This progressive move is helpful in the midst of increasing health care cost, but the question still remains whether calling an Uber over 911 is really worth the discount.

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