Countering Amazon’s Defense to Liability for the Conduct of Its Delivery Drivers

Posted on August 30, 2022

Amazon delivery drivers are often responsible for accidents that result in catastrophic injuries and death. In 2021 alone, Amazon was the defendant in upwards of 119 automobile accident lawsuits. For example, 24-year-old was sitting in the backseat of his brother’s vehicle as they were stopped in traffic on the highway in Atlanta, Georgia. The vehicle was then struck from behind by a speeding Amazon delivery van, rendering the plaintiff a quadriplegic with severe brain and spinal cord injuries. In Massachusetts, a man suffered a traumatic brain injury after an Amazon delivery driver, who fell asleep at the wheel, swerved across the double line and struck Plaintiff’s vehicle head-on. In another tragic incident, a PSBR client was hit and killed by an Amazon van after the van illegally crossed several lanes of traffic making an illegal turn.

Amazon has been able to dodge liability in many cases across the country when lawyers are not aware of the full control Amazon exerts over these drivers. Amazon asserts that their delivery drivers are not Amazon employees, rather, they are hired by independent contractors called “delivery service partners.” Across the U.S., Amazon enlists over 800 different logistics companies, primarily as a means to minimize their liability exposure. This loophole is used by various other corporations as well, such as Uber/Uber Eats, who claim that their drivers are independent contractors themselves. Amazon’s position is that they shouldn’t be liable for the actions of their drivers, because their drivers are employed by independent contractors, and not Amazon itself.

In reality, Amazon delivery drivers are agents of the contractors, and the contractors are agents of Amazon. Additionally, Amazon retains such control over the driver’s they can be held responsible as a “special employer” even though Amazon is not necessarily paying the drivers directly.

Even if an employer hires independent contractors, the employer can still be liable for the actions of that contractor, if it is suggested/implied that the contractor works for them. This is ostensible agency. The delivery drivers are ostensible agents- people who have been given the appearance of being an employee or acting agent, which would make anyone dealing with them reasonably believe they are an employee or agent. Ostensible agency is defined in California Civil Code Section 2300: “An agency is ostensible when the principal intentionally causes a third person to believe another to be his agent who is not really employed by him.” The DSP drivers wear Amazon uniforms, which display the company name and logo, drive and operate distinctly marked Amazon vehicles, use an app designed specifically for Amazon DSP, and deliver Amazon packages.

Ostensible agency is common in medical malpractice lawsuits, as hospitals often hire independent physicians to staff their emergency rooms. Patients are typically unaware of this relationship, as they come to the ER for general medical service and accept whichever physician is assigned to their case. A California Appellate Court stated, “unless the patient had some reason to know of the true relationship between the hospital and the physician, ostensible agency is readily inferred” (3 Cal.App.5th at p. 1038). Therefore, “a hospital is liable for a physician’s malpractice when the physician is actually employed or is the ostensible agent of the hospital.” (Whitlow v. Rideout Memorial Hospital (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 631, 635, 636.)

Under a special employment theory of liability Amazon can be held liable for the conduct of its delivery drivers as Amazon retains control over the method and means of how the drivers conduct the details of the job.

Amazon DSP drivers are required to use the Mentor App, which allows Amazon to monitor their driving habits. The Mentor App is an app that was developed “for drivers of Delivery Service Providers engaged by Amazon.” The app oversees acceleration, braking, cornering, speeding, distraction level, receiving phone calls, number of hours worked, number of miles driven, etc. The app gives drivers a score based on the elements listed above. The app also provides drivers with a checklist that they must complete prior to driving as well as a post-trip checklist.

Many delivery vehicles are also equipped with artificial intelligence dashcams that observe both the road and the driver during trips. This technology has the capability to detect every time a driver yawns for the purpose of tracking the driver’s drowsiness level. It also coaches and alerts drivers in real-time while they are driving.

Both the Mentor App and the AI dashcams that are used by DSP drivers were supplied by Amazon to better manage their drivers. The heavy surveillance of the drivers demonstrates the extent of Amazon’s involvement.

In addition to utilizing third-party logistics companies to hire drivers, Amazon also directly hires independent drivers through the Amazon Flex App. The Flex App is more parallel to Uber, where an individual can sign up to be a driver, and then use their own vehicle to make deliveries. These drivers are required to use the Flex App while they drive, which also monitors them considerably. In February of 2022, an Amazon Flex driver who was admittedly distracted by the GPS directions he was receiving, hit a motorcyclist. The victim of the crash had to receive a leg amputation as a result of his injuries. The lawsuit filed against Amazon Logistics claims that Amazon (through the Flex App) “micromanages every aspect of a delivery driver’s route, including which directions to take, when to take breaks and lunches, and when to return to the station.” The app also alerts the driver when they have fallen behind the delivery schedule, which can result in reduced pay, potentially encouraging the driver to cut corners and drive recklessly in order to stay on schedule. Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that Amazon assigns their drivers “unrealistic” delivery quotas that require dangerous driving speeds. Amazon pays Flex drivers directly on the Flex App.

Despite what their attorneys argue, Amazon delivery drivers are agents of Amazon. They wear Amazon branded uniforms and drive Amazon marked vehicles. They make trips to and from Amazon warehouses to deliver Amazon packages, and use Amazon supplied software, such as apps, cameras, and GPS, to assist with, and monitor their deliveries.

PSBR remains committed to holding Amazon accountable for the many catastrophic injuries and deaths caused by drivers under the unrealistic pressures imposed on them by Amazon.

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