A few hours before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013, Uber driver Syed Abid Muzaffar made a fatal right-hand turn. As a traffic light at Polk and Ellis streets turned green he drove his gray Honda Pilot SUV through a crosswalk and ran over six-year-old Sophia Liu. Her mother, Huan Hua Kuang suffered a major head injury, and her five-year-old brother, Anthony, was seriously injured. Police and paramedics responded but were unable to save Sophia.
Muzaffar was arrested, and charged with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. He’s been out on $50,000 bail for four-and-a-half years, and last month, the case finally made it to court. It’s nitpicky; there’s no debate over whether or not Muzaffar hit the Liu family, but how negligent he was being when he did it.
In the weeks after the incident Kuang told the press she saw him on his phone right before the collision. There’s no way to know if he actually was, but Muzzafar’s public defender, Sliman Nawabi, says that it was an infrastructure issue, not a case of negligence.
“This was a tragic accident,” he said, blaming the vehicle’s bad visibility, and the fact that the pedestrian light and the car traffic light turned green at the same time.
District Attorney Tom Ostly, on the other hand, says that an “accident” implies that Muzzafar couldn’t have done anything to avoid hitting the family.
“You have a duty to whoever’s in the crosswalk not to hit them,” Ostly told the jury. “You don’t drive unless you can see.”
The jury didn’t deliberate long. After two days, they determined Thursday that Muzzafar was guilty for vehicular manslaughter.
Uber was a fairly new company at the time of the collision, and the issue of fault and insurance immediately came into play. Muzaffar’s Uber app was active, but he didn’t have a passenger in the car when he hit Sophia. Because of this, Muzaffar was not covered by Uber’s insurance, and the company denied any legal responsibility in the case.
Lawyer Christopher Dolan challenged this in a 2014 suit filed against the company on behalf of the family, whose medical bills racked up to more than $500,000. It was settled in July 2015 for an undisclosed amount.
While we don’t know how much the Liu family received, that and the national coverage the case garnered made the company reconsider its policies.
“As a result of the lawsuit, Uber changed its policies to expand insurance coverage for collisions and crashes caused by Uber drivers even if there is no passenger in the car when the accident occurs as long as the driver is logged into Uber’s app and available to accept a ride,” Dolan wrote on his blog. “In addition, the Liu family, with support from the Consumer Attorneys of California, successfully lobbied the Legislature for the adoption of a law requiring Uber and other rideshare companies to have $1 million in liability insurance coverage for their drivers.”
But the discussion about how much responsibility corporations must take for their gig workers’ behavior is still underway. The case of a Lyft driver who allegedly sexually assaulted at least four women in San Francisco is currently wending its way through the courts.
Muzzafar may have gotten a guilty verdict in the courts this week, but it’s one of the few instances where Uber, with the settling of what was likely a massive lawsuit, was held accountable as well.