Uber notifications (copy)

Uber will start sending notifications to riders reminding them about safety steps they need to take in the wake of the death of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson. File

Pedestrians have been hit by Uber drivers, left stranded by drivers and even killed in crashes, according to eight lawsuits filed in Charleston County. 

The issues cast a shadow from South Carolina and elsewhere as Uber is prepping for a Wall Street debut with its first public offering anticipated this summer. 

Lawsuits against Uber are often treated like standard traffic accident cases but it can get complicated. As more Uber vehicles hit the roads, accident attorneys and lawmakers have tried to grapple with the intricacies of ride-hailing companies and their insurance. 

Jeffrey Gaetke was walking across Meeting Street when he was thrown in the air after being hit by an Uber driver, according to a lawsuit filed against the company last week.

He suffered injuries to his head, neck, shoulder, elbow, chest and face, according to the suit. He had to have three screws, bolts and a plate put into his arm. His medical bills could reach nearly $75,000.

It was national news when a University of South Carolina student was kidnapped and killed after she called an Uber and got into the wrong car last month.

In February, a lawsuit was filed against Uber when a traffic crash caused the death of driver in Mount Pleasant.

A Georgia man filed a lawsuit alleging that in August 2017 his Uber driver struck a parked car on Hanover Street. The driver asked him to get out and then he sped off. The man claimed he was then beaten up by the owners of the parked vehicle.

In eight civil cases, Uber, its affiliated companies and drivers were named as defendants. Many of them have been dismissed or settled in arbitration.

Uber denied many of the allegations in the lawsuits, according to court filings. An Uber spokeswoman said the company is unable "to comment on pending or resolved litigation."

Driving or not driving?

Lowcountry attorneys have been seeing more cases involving the company in recent years. 

Gaetke's lawyer, Gary Ling, said they are usually treated like "routine negligence cases." The driver's attorney and Uber have not officially responded to his client's lawsuit, Ling said.

The North Charleston attorney said he has handled several cases against the company, representing Uber's drivers and passengers.

"Uber is usually easy to work with," Ling said. "The issue comes when they dispute a part of the case."

Often, Uber's prime question is if the driver was working for them at the time of the incident.

Tina Bell was driving on Hungry Neck Boulevard near Market Center Boulevard in Mount Pleasant when she was hit by a man who was acting as an Uber driver within the “scope of his employment," the lawsuit said.

In a response, Uber denied he was working in the capacity as a driver.

In the Hanover Street incident, Chris Hunt claimed he was beaten up after his Uber driver hit a parked car and then told him to get out of the vehicle, according to the lawsuit. The owner of the parked car and his friends allegedly chased down and assaulted Hunt.

The company responded that Hunt's driver was "logged on to the driver version of the app." Uber denied the other allegations.

Florida-based personal injury attorney Jason Neufeld has marketed his firm as experts in "Uber car accident law" and has handled more than 50 cases relating to ride-hailing accidents.

"In most cases, working with Uber is easier," Neufeld said. "It's more difficult if Uber challenges if the app was on ... the driver isn't always acting in the capacity as an Uber driver."

If an Uber driver is not active, or the app is off, they are covered by their own insurance, according to Uber's website. 

If the driver has the Uber app on but doesn't have a passenger, then they're only covered for liability like a pedestrian accident. But that is only if their personal auto insurance doesn’t apply.

If a driver is en route to pick up a passenger, that driver is on the clock for Uber and covered by the company's insurance. But if the driver injures a pedestrian while they are on the way to pick up a passenger, the ride could get canceled, Neufled said, which means they're not covered by liability such as a pedestrian accident.

If the Uber driver has a passenger, then they are covered by the company, including $1 million in liability insurance. 

If Uber disputes that the app was on, sometimes it means attorneys need to secure cell phone records or screenshots of the app.

'It will save a lot of lives'

The company made national headlines in March when USC student Samantha Josephson got into a car she believed was her Uber. She had been out with friends at a bar in Columbia’s Five Points when she left around 1:30 a.m.

In total, 19 states, including South Carolina, do not require front license plates to make it easier to identify the right ride-booking car.

Uber announced new features following the student's death, such as push notifications reminding passengers of safety steps and reminding them to check the license plate number.

State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, said he was "deeply sickened" after hearing about Josephson's death. He said he lives less than a mile away from Five Points. He wanted to work on a law to prevent something like that happening again.

In response to the tragedy, he proposed a bill that would require Uber drivers to have illuminated signs on their vehicles.

"That's the first indication that your ride is coming from a distance," Rose said. "It's not the end all and be all. But it will save a lot of lives."

Senators advanced the bill after replacing the lighted logo requirement with a requirement to display their license plate number in the front windshield.

Trevor Theunissen, a regional spokesman for Uber, said the bill could generate a false sense of security over something that could be counterfeit.

“If consumers get in the habit of looking at stickers” instead of double-checking the info on their ride provided in the smartphone app, “we’re playing right into the hands of criminals,” he told The Post and Courier this week.

Rose was happy to see legislative action on his proposal but said illuminated signs might be more beneficial and could serve as a way for pedestrians to better notice ride-hailing drivers.

"Illuminated signage is being used elsewhere with success by ride-sharing companies. Why not South Carolina?" Rose said. "I believe the Senate change is a step in the right direction, albeit not as good of one."

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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