Commercial liability insurance protects the owner of a company against claims of liability for bodily injury and property damage. As opposed to personal passenger vehicles which only require minimum state limits for liability insurance, vehicles used in the course of a business are usually required to carry insurance with higher coverage for bodily injuries and property damage in the event of an accident. Pretty simple and not much room for debate, right? Wrong.
Much to the dismay of both insurance companies and taxicab companies, ride-sharing start-ups such as Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft have swept across the country in the last few years. All are venture capital funded, San Francisco-based companies that have grown into billion dollar industries, operating in almost every state in the U.S.
Transportation Service or Technology Company?
These companies have long argued that they are merely technology companies and should not be subjected to all the rules, regulations, and permits that state and local agencies mandate for other transportation companies like taxi services. More importantly, they argue that they should not have to maintain the type of commercial insurance that is required for vehicles used in the course of a business. Consequently, states, counties, departments of insurance and public utilities commissions are scrambling to deal with this debate across the country. California’s struggle is a perfect example of the conflicts presented in the majority of states.
When Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft first started operating in San Francisco, they required their drivers to carry personal minimum liability insurance, which in California is $15,000 for injuries, $30,000 for total liability and $5,000 in property damage.
Taxi companies’ primary concern is eventually going out of business because, they argue, licenses, permits and insurance premiums make it impossible to compete with ride-sharing prices. On the other hand, insurance companies maintain that they want ride-sharing companies to continuing to prosper, as long as they are adequately insured. They claim that do not want to get stuck with the bill if the drivers only have personal insurance policies, but they refuse to admit they are trying to upset these companies business models.
Consequences of the Insurance Gap
Adding more fuel to the fire, in January of 2014, a 6-year-old girl was run down by an Uber driver in San Francisco. Although, Uber had a $1 million umbrella insurance policy, they maintained the driver was not covered because he didn’t have a passenger in the car. Here lies the problem. In San Francisco, authorized taxis are required to provide $1 million of liability coverage per incident, 100% of the time.
Now there were real-world consequences to the perceived gap in insurance coverage, where the umbrella commercial policy was not yet in effect because the driver did not technically have any passengers.
The insurance industry’s stance is that any time drivers are logged into a ridesharing smartphone app and looking for a ride they are providing a commercial service. The argument is that, because drivers are going to go where potential riders are, based on the pings the apps send to them, they will inevitably be driving to crowded urban areas. This often occurs at night when there is a greater chance for accidents, triggering insurance pay-outs. Therefore, when they enter these areas based on their running apps, they are engaged in “changed behavior” and transition to commercial drivers. Essentially, insurers argue, the drivers are no longer entitled to personal liability coverage and must now have commercial coverage.
In California, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) stepped in and set regulations for ride-sharing companies, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. Not technically exclusive to these companies, the regulations targeted all “New Online Enabled Transportation Services” (TNC.) They defined this as an organization that provides pre-arranged transportation services for compensation using an online enabled app or platform to connect passengers with drivers using their personal vehicles. Included are requirements that the TNC get a permit from the PUC, a criminal background check be issued for each driver, there be a driver training program, a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol and increased insurance coverage. As for insurance coverage PUC mandates that a TNC maintains commercial liability insurance policies of not less than $1,000,000 per incident coverage if the accident occurs while the driver is providing services.
The new PUC regulations did little to satisfy the insurance companies and they insisted the commercial coverage extended to whenever the driver had their app running. In response, several proposals backed by insurance company lobbyists, were presented to the California legislature calling to overwrite PUC’s regulations and include stricter rules for permits and licensing. However, their principal demand was for mandatory commercial liability insurance for drivers even when they have no passengers.
At this point the legislature has conceded that PUC, and PUC alone, has regulatory authority over ridesharing companies. Local taxi cab regulators have no authority, meaning special city permits and licensing requirements do not apply. The bill, which was passed by the California State Assembly and State Senate in late August of 2014, will require drivers to have $50,000 coverage per person for death and injuries; $100,000 damage coverage per accident; and $30,000 coverage for property damage. The ride-share companies also must have $200,000 in excess liability to cover costs of accidents that exceed policy limits. However, the question remains, which insurance policy provides the extra $200,000 in coverage for drivers who cause accidents on personal trips while running on apps on their smartphones. This has yet to be adequately addressed and resolved.
Are There Any Other Alternative Solutions?
Many states are claiming that the ride-share companies are coming into their communities in full force, blatantly ignoring any regulations or restrictions that are passed. However, ride-shares have agreed in several states to provide $1 million in commercial coverage for whenever a ridesharing driver has a passenger. They claim to have offered solutions to deal with the insurance gap but, at this point, they have not agreed to the level of commercial coverage during the times that insurers are demanding.
State governments and other regulators have varied on their methods when trying to deal with ride-sharing companies. The following are some examples of the different approaches:
- In Washington, D.C. the state legislature is considering a bill that would set minimum commercial insurance. There is a proposal from the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission to regulate ride-sharing companies so that their commercial insurance coverage would be the primary coverage for personal vehicles.
- Connecticut and Kansas send alerts to ride-sharing drivers that they may not be covered by their personal auto insurance policies while driving for the company.
- In Washington State there was a proposed state bill mandating a study of ride-sharing companies that must provide a report to the legislature examining issues such as insurance coverage requirements and safety regulations. This bill was defeated. However, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that requires drivers to have commercial insurance coverage whenever that driver is available for a ride.
- The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance requiring ride-sharing companies to provide $1 million of primary noncontributory coverage. Additionally, they must have $1 million in liability coverage for themselves, and $1 million for the drivers from acceptance to the conclusion of the ride.
- Cease and desist letters have been issued to ridesharing companies by cities in Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Texas cities of Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
Although the ride-sharing companies have agreed to comply with some state legislation, critics continue to argue that the legislature is not entitled to regulate the “sharing economy” and interfere with legitimate technological business models. With the rise of technology will come an increased number of unforeseen issues concerning insurance coverage, the state legislatures will continue to wrestle with new snags in the system and the law will change at a rate that the public has never before seen?