Bird, Lime See Scooter Crashes But No Suits—Yet

Oct. 2, 2018, 11:07 AM

Those fluorescent-green, apple-red and many-other colored scooters zipping around major U.S. cities look cool and fun. But don’t expect lawyers to help if you get hurt crashing or falling off one.

Congested cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington are finding their streets and sidewalks overwhelmed by electric scooters rented from Lime, Bird Rides Inc., and others. Injuries tied to scooters, which go up to 15 mph, have spiked too, with two user deaths reported last month.

That dangerous combination seems like it would be good business for plaintiffs’ lawyers. But firms in two cities with some of the most scooters haven’t sued any companies that operate there. That includes one L.A.-area firm that fields five to 10 calls a week from people involved in accidents.

“The reason we haven’t is they have pretty ironclad waiver of liability provisions,” Neama Rahmani of West Coast Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles told Bloomberg Law.

The rental contracts must be electronically signed via the companies’ apps. They also have arbitration provisions barring suits in court.

Those restrictive contract terms have, so far, blocked claims of unsafe design, poor maintenance, and lack of safety warnings and rider trainings. But waves of personal injury suits are coming, some attorneys predict.

The first cases might not come from injured users, who assumed the risk of riding. But from pedestrians, bicyclists, and car drivers who find themselves competing for space with the fast-moving, quick turning vehicles.

Injuries, Not Suits, Up

Companies like Lime and Bird bet that shifts in economic behavior, millennials forgoing cars, and the rise of a do-it-yourself culture, clear the path for environmentally friendly shared services.

Investors like the idea. The two best-known companies have secured substantial venture funding. Bird recently raised $300 million and Lime $250 million. With major backing from Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc., scooter companies have expanded rapidly in Washington, L.A. and Boston.

But scooters go beyond those lucrative markets. Counting pilots, at least 34 of the 100 largest U.S. cities have them, Nicole Payne, a spokeswoman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said.

The group doesn’t have rider figures. But Bird estimates 15,000 scooters in the L.A. area. It is now in 40 U.S. cities, Lime in 23, according to Bloomberg News. Another company, Spin, is in 19 cities.

But emergency personnel have seen accidents and injuries rise.

The Santa Monica Fire Department responded to 34 accidents this summer, said Rahmani’s firm. An ER doctor in San Francisco reports as many as 10 severe injuries per week, it said.

California scooter users “have to ride on the street with motor vehicles that are thousands of pounds heavier than them, so even a minor-impact accident can cause a very significant injury,” Rahmani said.

But a Bloomberg Law search showed no federal or state suits. Skip, one of the rideshare companies, told Bloomberg Law it isn’t aware of iany suits or arbitrations against it.

Designing, Maintaining, Training

That’s surprising because companies play many roles producing and renting scooters that could land them in court.

Some buy pre-made scooters from China and brand them as their own. Others, like Lime and Skip, design and produce theirs.

All the companies maintain the scooters and warn of risk, some also include helmets and rider trainings. Things can go wrong in all those areas and attorneys have heard of many shortcomings.

Skip, in comments to Bloomberg Law, highlighted its concern for safety, but also showed how involved it is in so many different areas of production. Their scooters include “key safety features such as headlights and taillights, independent suspension, and a wider and higher footboard to improve stability” in design, the company said.

“Our safety efforts include extensive rider training via our mobile app, hands-on training at community events and meetups, and our helmet giveaway program where we are working to help ensure that people who want helmets get them,” it said.

Bird, Lime, Scoot and Spin didn’t respond to comment requests.

Few Suits By Users

So far, attorneys have mainly seen cases where users are injured and want to sue others besides the scooter companies. “My biggest concern is the New York City streets,” New York plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel Flanzig said.

Flanzig & Flanzig LLP fields calls about cars hitting scooters and skateboards. “The negligence is usually on the part of a driver or a city for a defective street.”

Attorney Allen Patatanyan with West Coast Trial Lawyers said one reason for few suits is scooters are obviously dangerous. So there’s a good argument users assume the risk when they rent.

That’s also what liability waivers in rental contracts lock in.

Provisions also make users arbitrate, something many technology and other companies do , including Lime-investor Uber.

Forced arbitration is unusual for product liability and personal injury claims.

“Generally, manufacturers don’t have a contract with a consumer—most products are bought through a retailer,” said consumer attorney Paul Bland with Public Justice in Washington.

Flanzig said the arbitration clauses could violate public policy.

Battles to Come

Flanzig predicts scooter claims, like prior suits over short-term bike rentals, will eventually explode. That seems especially likely after two recent user deaths.

“There was an epidemic of product liability issues with CityBike, where there were problems with the fender stays, and a big issue over whether they got replacement parts on time,” he said.

“I expect we’ll see more litigation over scooters in the future,” he said.

Designs may be targets as Flanzig worries about New York street conditions. “Are these things stable?,” he said.

Helmets are a big issue. “The scooter companies are speaking out of both sides of their mouth” when they encourage helmet use in rental contracts, but then sponsor bills, like one just enacted in California, allowing adults to ride without them, Rahmani said.

Carlos Sanchez-Martin, age 20, died Sept. 21 in a Lime accident in Washington, which doesn’t require helmets. Jacoby Stoneking, 24, died Sept. 2 in Dallas, also on a Lime. He died of blunt force trauma and wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Failing to warn of riding in traffic, and poor maintenance, also will be litigated.

And they surely will, especially because some injured people—pedestrians on sidewalks, car drivers braking suddenly to avoid scooters—won’t be restricted by app usage terms that make it so easy to grab a scooter and go.

—With Bloomberg Law’s Steve Sellers

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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