Carolyn Said | on April 18, 2016
Eighteen months after an accident claimed the life of a 24-year-old Sacramento man taking a Lyft ride home on a rainy night, his mother and boyfriend are suing the San Francisco ride company. They claim that Lyft is dragging its heels on taking financial responsibility for a crash that the California Highway Patrol says was the Lyft driver’s fault.
“Losing my son is a black hole I live with all the time,” said Donna Dinapoli, 55, a Folsom resident. “And I’m angry because it was so senseless and didn’t have to happen if the driver had been more careful.”
Lyft, despite its vaunted $1 million insurance liability policy, has not offered her compensation or even condolences, she said. “I think it’s a disgrace for a company as large as Lyft” to try to duck responsibility, Dinapoli said.
“Our hearts go out to the victims of this tragic accident,” Lyft wrote in a statement. “Lyft’s $1 million liability policy, which includes uninsured/underinsured liability coverage, is designed to provide coverage for Lyft drivers to protect passengers and third parties.”
A source familiar with Lyft’s position on the case said the company has not disclaimed responsibility for the accident, which was the young company’s first fatality. The delays stemmed from the investigation of the crash by Lyft’s insurance carrier — James River Insurance Co., which also insures Uber rides — a process that is still ongoing, the source said. The legal case, which is still in the discovery process, also is likely to have a lengthy timeline. Dinapoli’s attorney said he hopes to go to trial by the end of the year.
In the early hours of Nov. 1, 2014, Dinapoli’s son, Shane Holland, 24, and his boyfriend, Brady Lawrence, 27, summoned a Lyft car to take them home from a Halloween party. Holland had promised his mother that the couple would be safe and not get behind the wheel.
Heading westbound on I-80 near Citrus Heights in Sacramento County, Lyft driver Shanti Adhikari, then 31, abruptly swerved to avoid a disabled vehicle up ahead, lost control of his Toyota Camry and spun out onto the shoulder, where the car smashed into two trees, killing Holland and injuring Lawrence and the driver, according to the CHP report on the incident.
“(Adhikari) caused this collision by making an unsafe turning motion,” said the CHP report, adding that the Lyft driver’s actions were “the proximate cause” of Holland’s fatal injuries and amounted to “involuntary manslaughter without gross negligence.” Moreover, the Lyft driver had no proof of insurance, the CHP said. Adhikari said he was struck from behind, rather than having swerved, the report said. “After inspecting (the Lyft car) on scene, I was unable to locate damage which would substantiate (that) claim,” the investigating officer wrote. Adhikari, who could not be reached for comment, has not been charged.
Over speed limit
Kevin Morrison, the attorney for Dinapoli and Lawrence, said data from the Camry showed it was going at 75 mph at the time of the crash, over the legal speed limit and particularly unsafe in rainy conditions.
Morrison said Adhikari, who had been driving for Lyft for about a month at the time, had a speeding conviction from a year before the accident. That wouldn’t have disqualified him from driving for Lyft. Its website states that a driver can have up to three moving violations in the past three years and up to one major moving violation.
To a layperson, Lyft’s legal responses to the lawsuit may seem harsh. Its “affirmative defense” appears to blame the victims. “Injuries or damages to decedent, if any, were proximately caused by negligence, recklessness or intentional conduct of decedent in that he failed to exercise ordinary care under the circumstances,” says its answer to the case filed in San Francisco Superior Court.
While heartless-sounding, such wording is commonplace, said Andrew Bradt, assistant professor at UC Berkeley School of Law. “They have to put that language into their early filings in order to avoid waiving the possibility of contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiffs,” he said. For instance, if the passengers were found not to have been wearing seat belts, Lyft’s and its insurer’s liability could be reduced, he said. “Failure to assert a possible defense can result in losing it forever.”
Still, he said, Lyft’s responses are unlikely to play well in the court of public opinion — and could hurt the company’s reputation. “It seems like misdirection if one of their main selling points is protection by an insurance policy, but the realities of recovering under that policy are extremely onerous,” Bradt said.
Lyft’s response also uses the driver’s status as an independent contractor as a defense, another commonplace legal placeholder for a possible future defense. The driver “was an independent contractor responsible for their own means and methods, making the doctrine of respondeat superior inapplicable,” Lyft’s response said. That doctrine holds that an employer is responsible for wrongful actions an employee performs within the scope of his or her work.
While the lawsuit doesn’t seek a specific amount, “I’m sure it’s more than a million-dollar case, by a lot,” said Bradt, the Berkeley Law professor.
Uber’s similar battle
Lyft’s arch-rival Uber notoriously prolonged a battle over a fatal accident. After an Uber driver struck and killed a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve in 2013, Uber allegedly disclaimed responsibility because the driver was in between ride assignments. That case was finally settled in July 2015 for an undisclosed amount before it was to go to trial.
The other passenger in the Lyft accident, Lawrence, who spent three days in a hospital intensive care unit after the accident, said he racked up $92,000 in medical bills. A massage therapist, Lawrence said he was unable to work for almost a year after the accident as he healed from internal injuries and multiple contusions. He’s still emotionally traumatized from losing the man he expected to spend his life with.
“I grew up in a fundamental Christian family and had issues with accepting my sexuality,” Lawrence said. “Shane was the first person who made me feel loved, accepted and understood.”
Holland, who had struggled with Tourette syndrome, was attending Sierra College, a community college in Rocklin, full time as a physics major with the goal of transferring to UC Davis, then pursuing medical school to be a radiologist, his mother said.
Both Lawrence and Dinapoli said it adds to their pain to have to pursue a legal battle.
“It’s hard to keep having to relive and replay everything I went through that night,” Lawrence said. “It makes me sad and it makes me angry.”
San Francisco Chronicle