As family files wrongful death lawsuit, Uber admits it didn't directly background check towncar drivers

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 27, 2014

From The News Desk

Yesterday the New York Times broke two stories about Uber. First, that the family of the six year old who was killed New Year's Eve by Uber driver Syed Muzzafar is filing a wrongful death suit against the company, the first such suit in Uber's history. Secondly, that Uber has told its drivers they will need to undergo new background checks.

The suit was filed by the family of six-year-old Sofia Liu this morning. Sources inside Uber confirmed the new background checks this morning, but clarified that they will only affect those hired through Transportation Charter Parties (i.e. the black car companies) in San Francisco. Ridesharing drivers will not get re-checked.

The distinction is not as clear cut as it sounds. As Pando has covered previously, many UberX ridesharing drivers are in fact TCP employees, who just drive less fancy cars when they're on UberX duty. In those cases, “ridesharing” really means “riding with a TCP driver in a Prius instead of a black car.”

The revetting of drivers comes a few weeks after Pando's investigation into Uber drivers who passed background checks despite previous criminal convictions. As Pando reported, at least one Uber driver, Daveea Whitmire, had two felony charges to his name. This is a driver who allegedly assaulted an UberX passenger. At the time, Uber insisted that Whitmire, and all its other drivers, had gone through the company's vetting.

Now, however, sources inside Uber have confirmed that the company did not carry out its own checks on drivers contracted through black car companies. Since all TCP's must, by law, run drivers through background checks, Uber had relied on those checks without doing any of its own.

In other words, Uber has been misrepresenting that it vetted all drivers itself when, for more than half of its fleet, it was trusting its partner companies to do the due diligence.

From today, the company is running all TCP drivers in San Francisco through its own background checks. Uber insists the move is just "operational housekeeping." The company did not return requests for comments about whether it will start running its own background checks on TCP drivers outside the San Francisco market.

We want to applaud any steps by Uber that toughen up the vetting procedure for strangers who ferry other strangers around in cars. Although the company should have been doing background checks itself from the get go, at least it's learning from its mistakes.

The move couldn't come too soon for Uber customers, particularly since it emerged that the Uber driver who killed Sofia Liu had a reckless driving record. Ten years ago in Florida, Muzzafar was arrested for driving 100 miles an hour into oncoming traffic in an attempt to pass another car.

To that note, Sofia Liu's family is suing Uber not just for wrongful death, but also for negligent hiring and negligence with a motor vehicle. The nation will be watching this case carefully, because it could set legal precedent for transportation networking companies' liability in the event of accident and assault cases. So far, no such case has gone all the way to trial yet.

[Image adapted from Thinkstock]