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Out of tragedy comes change

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Syed Abid Muzaffar, a former Uber driver from Union City, was found guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of Sophia Liu. (Courtesy SFPD)

This week’s article will focus on the trial and conviction of former Uber driver, Syed Abid Muzaffar, for the charge of vehicular manslaughter arising out of the Dec. 31, 2013 death of 6-year-old Sophia Liu as she was walking home from her grandmother’s house with her mother Huan, and brother, Anthony. As they were lawfully crossing Polk while traveling east on Ellis, Muzaffar turned right, crushing Sophia and catastrophically injuring Huan and Anthony. Huan testified that just before being run down she saw Muzzafar looking down at his cell phone, presumably checking his Uber app.

At the time of Sophia’s death, Uber first claimed that Muzzafar was not acting as an Uber driver, then later admitted that he had the app open, but sought to continue to distance the company from the tragedy by saying that he had no passenger onboard.

At this time Uber was still in its infancy and, acting as an infant, refused to accept any responsibility for Muzaffar’s conduct. Uber also revealed that it carried no insurance to cover losses, injuries and/or death caused by Uber drivers. Muzzafar maintained the minimum amount of insurance on his vehicle: $15,000 per any one person and no more than $30,000 for all injuries caused in a single event. Prior to this tragedy I had written, in this very paper, that such a tragedy would happen. I had raised an alarm about the business operations of Uber that went unaddressed by our mayor, board of supervisors or state legislature.

Sophia’s death, the first to occur anywhere in the world by a “rideshare” driver, finally brought the issue to the public consciousness.

Given my previous work on the “Uber issue,” I was retained by the family to represent them in the wrongful death case. Given their limited English, I spoke on their behalf at Sophia’s funeral. It was heart wrenching for me as she laid in her casket under a Disney Princess blanket, the same one my 7-year-old daughter slept under every night. The Liu family wanted me to communicate not only the beauty of their daughter in life and the devastation that befell them with her death, they wanted me to communicate loud and clear that they would seek to hold Uber and the driver accountable for the devastation inflicted on their family. They also asked me to commit to be that agent of change. I agreed.

I filed the first wrongful death lawsuit against Uber alleging several novel theories in addition to the standard negligence claims. I plead a cause of action maintaining that the app, as employed by the drivers, constituted a dangerous product as it required driver interaction, and instant messaging which violated California law thereby creating a risk of driver distraction: the very cause of Sophia’s death.

In addition to the lawsuit, I joined the California Public Utilities proceedings, as a party, and participated in advocating for citizen safety, and Uber driver protection, demanding that Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing companies (now called Transportation Network Carriers -TNC) be responsible for providing insurance protection to cover the conduct of their drivers as well as harm the drivers might suffer from the negligence of others.

I also advocated for safety regulations for the Uber cars and background and security checks on drivers to provide a minimum level of public safety. In doing so I was joined by the taxi industry, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other groups in advocating for regulation of this new industry that refused to follow existing safety rules. The proceedings were a success and regulations were developed to enhance public safety.

At the same time, I advocated that Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, wade into the debate. He took the position that TNCs had to maintain $1 million in insurance coverage for their operations. He also spurred development of new types of insurance to cover drivers when engaged in the commercial activities of Lyft and Uber.

Simultaneously, the Consumer Attorneys of California (of which I was a former president), the statewide association of trial lawyers like myself who advance the rights of and represent citizens who are injured through no fault of their own, through their head lobbyist, Nancy Peverini, worked hand in hand with me and others, including then-Assembly Member Susan Bonilla, to introduce legislation, SB 2293.

SB 2293 required Uber, Lyft and other TNCs to carry up to $1 million of insurance to cover their drivers while the app was on. The courageous Liu family accompanied me to Sacramento where together we advocated for the regulations, which ultimately passed and were signed by Gov. Brown. Later, the CPUC adopted the same regulations and the insurance mandate became the model for every state in the U.S.

The Liu family ultimately reached a resolution of their civil lawsuit against Uber, yet continued to advocate for accountability of the driver. District Attorney George Gascon, who had reviewed the case, charged Muzaffar with vehicular manslaughter. Again, Mrs. Liu testified about that fateful evening and, thanks to the effort of the DA’s office, Muzaffar was found guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. He now faces up to one year in jail. Following the conviction, Mrs. Liu stated that while she was glad that justice was done, she lived every day knowing she would never see her daughter again. She also stated that she was glad that, in honor of Sophia, the law had been changed.

Out of tragedy can come change. Not only for those directly involved but for society as a whole. I have been involved in great change dozens of times. This happens only when people think beyond themselves and are willing to fight for justice. That is what I do every day, whether it is in the courts, the statehouse or through a regulatory agency. That is what the Consumer Attorneys of California does: make the world a safer place while holding corporate America accountable.

If you have suffered a tragedy and you think that your experience can be used to benefit others, stand up and be heard. Go to an experienced trial lawyer and enlist their help, contact your local Assembly member or state senator and the Consumer Attorneys to see if they can help level the playing field.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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