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Uber, the real-time cab sharing application and taxi service, has become the talk of global communities in its ability to provide users a safe and easy means of transport. However, alongside this revolutionary transport phenomenon, questions around passenger liability have also been raised.

These questions have been highlighted in particular following various occurrences of disruption of Uber services – namely the Cape Town authorities’ crackdown on Uber drivers, seeing over 200 Uber vehicles impounded, as well as reports of the intimidation of Uber drivers in Johannesburg by metered taxi drivers.

Should an accident occur, who is responsible for damages to other cars, or for damages incurred by an Uber driver and their passengers?

The rise of services like Uber can be credited to more individuals seeing this as a safer transport alternative, especially in high-risk situations such as after consuming alcohol, or at odd hours of the evening. The liability challenges lie in that when an accident does occur, it becomes difficult to determine where accountability lies. Insurance companies need to carefully reassess policies provided in this instance. In the same way, policy holders – whether they are passengers or drivers – need to ensure that they have the appropriate cover in situations such as these.

According to Uber, each driver contracted by the organisation is responsible for getting their own passenger liability insurance, as they are independent contractors. This type of insurance protects the passenger, should the driver be deemed liable for the cause of an accident.

It is important that every Uber driver has this type of policy in place for business purposes, as opposed to personal purposes. This is to ensure full passenger protection, as well as their personal financial protection. There have been incidents in certain countries where insurance providers denied the claims of drivers due to them only being in possession of personal cover and not business liability insurance, which means the drivers in question were forced to cover the costs of damages directly out of their own pockets.

In a break-through USA case, however, a Californian court found that Uber drivers are not contractors, but can be defined as employees. As a result, this case found that the Uber organisation itself, rather than the drivers, may be liable for insurance payments.
Rulings like this could change the responsibility matrix in terms of who the passenger can hold liable for any damage that may occur, and indicate potential legislative changes which could take place locally in the future. With the spotlight on Uber in South Africa, the conversation around liability is indeed a crucial one for both drivers and passengers, while clarity on how both drivers and users of the Uber service can ensure they are fully protected is set to be a key point of focus.

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