Fatal accident in SF raises question: Who shares the blame in the ‘sharing economy’? 

In a heart-wrenching incident on New Year's Eve, a mother and her two children were struck by a vehicle in the Tenderloin, killing the daughter and critically wounding the mom. It later emerged that the man behind the wheel was an Uber driver -- sort of.

If there is a civil lawsuit brought by the family against the driver or Uber, it could be one of the first true legal cases that tests who shares the blame in what is called the "sharing economy."

The majority of these companies -- which include popular names such as Airbnb, Lyft, Sidecar and Uber -- say what they provide is the technology to connect people with services that would otherwise sit unused.

The difference between providing a service and offering the technology to allow others to provide a service allows the companies to mostly avoid the regulations that come with directly providing a service, according to the companies themselves and their backers. Some questions remain vague in this realm, such as San Francisco's hotel occupancy tax for Airbnb and who should be collecting it.

In the realm that is commonly referred to as "ride-sharing services," there is a little bit more regulation. The California Public Utilities Commission -- a state body that regulates other transportation industries, including taxicabs -- determined in July that companies such as Uber, Sidecar and Lyft are "charter party passengers subject to CPUC jurisdiction," according to a statement from the commission at the time. The commission "created the category of Transportation Network Company (TNC) to apply to companies that provide prearranged transportation services for compensation using an online-enabled application (app) or platform to connect passengers with drivers using their personal vehicles," the statement said.

In creating the new category, the commission also established 28 rules and regulations for the companies to follow in order to operate. One of the rules involved insurance, a big issue when it comes to the safety of passengers being shuttled around in private vehicles. The commission ordered that the companies "hold a commercial liability insurance policy that is more stringent than the CPUC's current requirement for limousines, requiring a minimum of $1 million per-incident coverage for incidents involving TNC vehicles and drivers in transit to or during a TNC trip, regardless of whether personal insurance allows for coverage," the commission stated in July.

The line about incidents "involving TNC vehicles and drivers in transit to or during a TNC trip" could come into play if legal action related to last week's fatal collision is pursued. The driver reportedly told police at the scene that he was an Uber driver awaiting a fare. After the crash, Uber said in a blog post that "we can confirm that this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system." The post was later updated to include, "The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident."

Any legal case would need to play out in a courtroom with experts dissecting the meaning of many parts of Uber's contract with drivers and the CPUC definitions for its rules and regulations. What is clear is that there seems to still be unclear parts of the so-called sharing economy when things go wrong.

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