Julie J. from Russian Hill asks this week's question:
Q: "I have seen these pink-mustache cars driving around. I checked it out and it is called Lyft, a smartphone-based app that lets people use their own cars to act like a taxi. I took a ride with a young guy and then my phone asked me to make a 'donation' for the ride, suggesting an amount, and asked me to rate the service. What is the legality of this service and how are they different than taxis?"
A: This question is on the cutting edge of law and politics. Here are my thoughts:
Lyft is not a taxi. Lyft (like the service Sidecar) styles itself as a "ridesharing exchange" claiming solely to maintain a platform where people can use their smartphones to find people willing to give them a ride in a ridiculously mustachioed vehicle. In my opinion, this is a ride that no one should ever take. Riding in one of these cars is much like having unprotected sex — while it may seem like fun at the time, it is very, very risky and you give up a host of your legal rights for the convenience and pseudo-cool factor of ridesharing.
The people running Lyft are taking 20 percent of the "donations" that drivers are getting. It is not a social cause. It's a business that is cloaking itself in the concept of being a futuristic, green, socially progressive alternative to car ownership and a way to overcome your frustrations with trying to get a cab. As part of this business model, you lose many rights and protections you have when you get into a taxi. Vehicles for hire are generally regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. Taxis are regulated locally, including in Article 16 of the San Francisco Police Code. Section 1076 defines a taxicab as a vehicle for hire of distinctive colors operated at rates per mile equipped with a taxi meter used for transporting passengers along public streets.
A pink-mustache car is a private vehicle that uses an app to connect people with each other to provide a shared ride between destinations for a suggested donation. You must pay a fare in a taxi or go to jail. If you choose a zero donation in a Lyft vehicle, there is no criminal penalty, but the Yelp-type review of you probably will make it difficult for you to share a ride in the future.
As Lyft and Sidecar have artfully styled themselves as rideshare services, they do not fit within the standard definition of a taxi. Currently, while the CPUC tries to define and regulate this new concept, there is virtually no regulation (i.e., no consumer protection by an independent agency). This is a pink mustache that has been driving through a legal loophole.
There are countless reasons I would never use Lyft and why I would strongly advise others against using it. The first and foremost is that by clicking to "accept the terms," YOU WAIVE YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL! For the convenience of a groovy ride in a clownmobile, you give up a right that people fought and died for.
The techies who "hold the space" for the platform want any legal actions against them to be dealt with in secret through binding arbitration. Is that "progressive"? If taking away your right to a jury trial were not enough, the user agreement states that "in no event will we, our subsidiaries, officers, directors, employees or our suppliers, be liable to you for any incidental or consequential damages ... including, without limitation, physical damages, bodily injury [or] death."
Having represented hundreds of people harmed or killed in taxi-related collisions, I can say that such an attempt at escaping liability is, in my opinion, about as despicably corporate as you can get. While this waiver has not yet been tested in court, I can promise you that when someone who has been injured catching a Lyft or riding in a Sidecar calls my office, I will do my best to have these provisions be held to be unconstitutional and to hold Lyft responsible for any fault it may have.
Next week, more on the issue of why taxis provide greater safety to passengers than Lyft or Sidecar.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to email@example.com.