How Amazon May Be Avoiding Responsibility for Its Crashes

AmazonA recent joint investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times examined how Amazon may be shirking responsibility for crashes caused by its increasingly fast delivery methods.

“Free” Delivery with a Hidden Human Cost

Amazon has come to dominate e-commerce. According to the most recent estimate, the company accounts for about 37.7 percent of online sales in the United States. One feature that has made Amazon so appealing to consumers is its increasingly fast delivery rate, particularly for Amazon Prime members. Free two-day delivery is currently the most common rate for members. However, as many as ten million products are already available for overnight delivery, and the company is investing $800 million to make overnight delivery the default for Prime members in the United States. In certain major cities, members already enjoy same-day or two-hour delivery on many items.

To keep up with this faster and faster turnover on billions of dollars of goods, Amazon has moved beyond legacy carriers like UPS, FedEx, and the United States Postal Service and begun assembling its own network of independent contractors to deliver its merchandise. The company has even introduced an app called Flex that allows people to sign up for delivery shifts using their own vehicles. While Amazon will not share what percentage of its packages these independent contractors deliver, analysts estimate they will handle 23 percent of the company’s deliveries in 2019 and 43 percent by 2024. The network of independent couriers offers many advantages for the company, allowing Amazon to expand and shrink the delivery force as needed to keep up with demand while avoiding the expense of taking on permanent employees.

But this fast, “free” delivery may come with a hidden human cost. ProPublica has identified more than 60 accidents involving Amazon delivery contractors since June 2015 that resulted in serious injuries, including ten deaths – and that number may represent only a fraction of the accidents that have occurred. Many people involved in these accidents do not sue, while court records, police reports, and news accounts suggest that those who do sue cannot always tell when Amazon is involved because the vehicles do not feature the company’s logo.

Even in cases in which Amazon’s involvement has been identified, the company argues that it bears no legal responsibility for those injured in these accidents because they happened under the watch of its independent contractors.

Independent Contractors, Control, and Legal Responsibility

Amazon is not alone in relying more heavily on independent contractors. It has become a common cost-saving measure in America’s new “gig” economy, one that has been coming under fire in recent years. For example, FedEx has settled a number of lawsuits from drivers who argued that they functioned as employees, not independent contractors, while Uber and Lyft recently announced they would spend $60 million to fight a proposed California law that would force them to treat contract drivers as employees.

You probably already know what a traditional employee is: Somebody who works directly for an employer for a salary or for hourly wages and often with benefits. In contrast, an independent contractor is a freelancer or self-employed person who is paid to perform services for another person or business. How is that different from an employee?
Independent contractors do not directly work for the company hiring them and typically are not eligible for various employee benefits, including health insurance, workers’ compensation, and unemployment. This is understandably appealing to companies looking to save money on labor costs.

But how are companies able to classify workers as independent contractors? The key element remains “control.” Independent contractors have more control over how they do the job they have been hired to do than classic employees. They are free to set their own hours, they can work for other companies, and they can choose how to dress, what tools to use, and what routes to take when they are traveling on the job – all elements that are traditionally under the control of employers.

The companies that hire them, in turn, are typically less responsible for their actions – a freedom from responsibility that Amazon makes explicit in its contracts with independent couriers.

Amazon has repeatedly and successfully argued in court that it is not responsible for the actions of its independent contractors, citing agreements that require them to “defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Amazon.” One Amazon operations manager recently testified in Chicago that Amazon signs such agreements with all its “delivery service partners,” who assume the liability and the responsibility for legal costs, including for “all loss or damage to personal property or bodily harm including death.”

But do these “delivery service partners” really meet the definition of true independent contractors, thereby shielding Amazon from responsibility for their actions? A number of recent lawsuits, filed by crash injury victims and drivers in wage disputes, argue “no.” They claim that Amazon retains so much control over its drivers that it is effectively their employer.

Despite Amazon’s insistence that its contractors hire and fire their own drivers, work orders and the court testimony of at least one Amazon manager show that the company can demand that contractors bar particular drivers from its delivery force. Amazon also directs and tracks the routes of the drivers. Additionally, unlike UPS or the Postal Service, Amazon is the sole client for many of these contractors.

Given Amazon’s discretion over hiring and firing of individual drivers, its ability to direct how and when the drivers carry out their work, and its status as the full-time source of income for the drivers, these lawsuits argue that Amazon has the control over its drivers as an employer – so it should also bear legal and financial responsibility for the innocent people its drivers injure and kill.

Have a Commercial Vehicle Accident Attorney on Your Side

The United States relies heavily on commercial vehicles to transport goods every day, often on behalf of large corporations like Amazon. Because these corporations are focused on maximizing profits, commercial vehicle operators are routinely encouraged to drive more and more miles for longer and longer hours each shift, which can be disastrous for innocent people on the road.

And if you are seeking reimbursement for the injuries you sustained in a commercial vehicle crash, you may soon discover how challenging these types of claims can be because of the number of parties involved. Outside of the driver and the driver’s employer, there is often a company like Amazon that hired the commercial transport company to ship its goods, and maybe other companies involved as well. You absolutely need to identify and pursue all the parties who may be at fault because failure to do so could forever bar you from obtaining the financial compensation you deserve.

The large corporations who hire these commercial transportation companies and the insurance carriers who represent them also have a financial incentive to fight you every step of the way to minimize the amount of money they have to pay. It is essential to have somebody on your side to fight back, like the commercial vehicle accident attorneys at GWC Injury Lawyers.

GWC is one of the premier Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firms in Illinois. With over $2 billion recovered for our clients and more than four decades in the business, GWC has the experience, the determination, and the proven record of success you need to help get you the justice you deserve.

If you have been injured by a commercial vehicle, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with a personal injury lawyer. Call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.