Michiganders everywhere are reeling from the news of the horrific Kalamazoo shootings. The scope and brazenness of this tragedy strikes all of us to the core.
As law enforcement officers work to piece together the details of what occurred, they and the victims’ families are asking important questions about what role the alleged killer’s status as an Uber driver played in the shootings.
Was there something in Jason Dalton’s background that would have been a red flag, had Uber subjected drivers to more rigorous background checks? Did Uber properly respond to the alarm sounded by one of its customer before the murders that this man was driving crazily through Kalamazoo? After receiving this message, did Uber properly monitor Dalton’s activities as he drove around Kalamazoo shooting innocent people? Why was Dalton allowed to pick up other passengers in the middle of a killing spree?
These are important questions that deserve comprehensive answers. Those answers may show that this was yet another unforeseen, random act of heinous crime. But they could also reveal that Uber could have done something more to prevent the tragedy or minimize its scope.
Underscoring the importance of these questions is the fact 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 company employees.
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 passed the House of Representatives last year and are now stalled in the Michigan Senate.
What’s radical about these bills is that they treat a $50-billion 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.
The success of these bills is critical to Uber’s business model. If Uber drivers are independent contractors, then Uber – the corporation – cannot be held liable for their actions. Also, having independent-contractor drivers means that Uber does not have to pay most traditional employer expenses. Not surprisingly, 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 on appeal.
When it comes to public policy, perhaps the only sliver of good news from this tragedy is the bills pending in the Michigan legislature 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.