Uncommon Carriers

As so-called ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft face increasing friction in other areas of the country, a key law regulating the industry in Illinois came under scrutiny on August 28th in the First District Illinois Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The case stems from an incident in 2017 where a women was violently assaulted by her Lyft driver. She brought suit against the company (and variously connected individuals) in Cook County, alleging that Lyft had been negligent in its hiring of the driver, had fraudulently held itself out as a safety-minded alternative to taxis and other methods of transportation, and was responsible for the vile behavior of its driver. Jane Doe v. Lyft, Inc. et al, 17 L 11355.

Because the behavior of the driver was so far outside the boundaries of reasonably expected behavior, crucial to the passengers argument is the concept of “common carrier” liability. Commercial vehicle companies, ranging from limousines and taxis to airplanes and cruise ships, have a higher duty to their customers than, for example, someone who happens to be a passenger in a private car. Lyft pushed back against having this level of duty, which is ultimately how the matter ended up in the First Appellate District Court.

All of this controversy stems from the Illinois Transportation Network Providers Act (625 ILCS 57), a statute which mostly outlines vehicle insurance and other regulatory requirements for ridesharing companies (Transportation Network Companies, or “TNCs”), but also includes Section 25(e)—which states that

(e) TNCs or TNC drivers are not common carriers, contract carriers or motor carriers, as defined by applicable State law, nor do they provide taxicab or for-hire vehicle service.

Lyft argues that this effectively prevents common-carrier duty from attaching to them, meaning that they have a much lower level of liability towards riders using their service. Unlike other comparative cases where courts found that entities were acting enough like common-carriers to be treated the same for liability purposes, they point to the fact that the Illinois legislature specifically wrote this exclusion into law to escape liability in this case, where the criminal behavior of the driver was so outrageous that normal employer liability would apply but common-carrier liability would.

The passenger, on the other hand, pushes back on several fronts. She argues that the Act is actually unconstitutional in several respects, specifically that it was improperly voted-on in the Illinois legislature (the specifics of which are pretty complicated, but basically involved using “shell laws” to meet the public reading requirement rather than reading the full texts of the passed statute, a common practice if a legally gray area), and that the law violates the Illinois Constitutional prohibition against “special legislation.” While I’m sure most laws are special to someone, this latter argument involves the constitutional requirement that statutes not be passed to benefit specific groups to the exclusion of others, when a generally applicable law would more rationally accomplish the goal of the legislation. The passenger argues that the Transportation Network Providers Act benefits such a small group of companies that it is effectively a means for ride-sharing companies to get unconstitutionally special treatment compared to common carriers such as taxicabs and other transportation companies.

The results of this case could potentially have a significant impact on the legal landscape for ridesharing companies in Illinois, as well as the possibility of holding them accountable for the behavior of their drivers.

-Attorney Travis Dunn