If you specialize in car accident litigation and have not seen a case involving Amazon deliveries, you likely will soon.
A 2019 investigation linked sixty accidents involving Amazon delivery contractors to serious injuries—including 10 deaths—since June 2015. According to Bloomberg, the online retailer’s delivery operations were named in at least 119 motor vehicle injury lawsuits in 35 states in 2021—more than quadruple the cases in 2020.
Among the 2021 incidents spurring lawsuits was a January head-on collision after a dozing delivery driver drifted into oncoming traffic, severely injuring another motorist. Two months later, an Amazon van following too closely rear-ended a car during a traffic slowdown, leaving the back-seat passenger paralyzed after spending months on life support. In October 2021, a driver studying his Amazon-supplied navigation device turned into the lane of a motorcyclist, who fractured a wrist and lost his left leg below the knee because of the accident.
To secure justice for plaintiffs such as these, lawyers must remain focused on holding those at fault accountable and not be distracted by rising costs of litigation against defendants with unlimited resources and a history of evading liability.
Through varied maneuvers, Amazon has made it difficult to compile and analyze data about its logistics operations. Amazon vans, for example, are small enough to avoid specialized driver license and training requirements as well as inclusion in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s tracking of large truck accidents, which number in the hundreds each year.
Though delivery drivers are increasingly seen at the wheel of marked blue vans, wearing shirts and hats bearing Amazon’s name and logo, as recently as 2019 many wore their own clothes and drove unmarked rental trucks, making it difficult for accident victims and witnesses to identify an affiliation with Amazon.
More notably, Amazon outsources delivery work through programs designed to sidestep carriers like the United Parcel Service.
These programs feed a network of “contractors,” allowing Amazon to adjust the size of its delivery force without hiring or firing employees. Amazon Flex, a gig work platform, lets drivers seeking extra cash sign up for shifts. The Delivery Service Partner (DSP) program invites entrepreneurs to invest as little as $10,000 to launch a package delivery business. Amazon gives DSPs access to its technology and helps them with training and technical and logistics support. Each DSP is its own company with its own fleet of (usually leased) vehicles, its own liability insurance, and a contract to indemnify Amazon against liability and legal costs for accidents.
Amazon consistently enforces those indemnity agreements and denies liability for accidents, claiming it isn’t responsible for the negligence of independent contractors. But these individual drivers and DSPs lack adequate means to compensate injured plaintiffs: In the back-seat passenger’s case, the $1 million in insurance coverage for the asset-poor DSP involved won’t cover even half the accrued medical bills.
Lawyers can make ample funds available to victims by showing that Amazon, with $469.82 billion in 2021 revenue, exerts such influence and control over contractors that it should be liable for their actions.
To support plaintiffs’ claims, attorneys undertake the expensive and time-consuming process of gathering, reviewing, and analyzing evidence demonstrating that Amazon isn’t just a customer of logistics contractors but their de facto manager. Apart from being the sole client, Amazon has invested over $1 billion in contractor training and technology to enhance safety, including outfitting more than half its US fleet with sensors and cameras to monitor such behaviors as speed, braking, acceleration, seatbelt use, distracted driving, signal and stop sign violations, phone calls, texting, and even yawning. Amazon recruits and refers drivers to DSPs, conducts training on company property, and requires the use of apps that design and assign routes, including what directions to take, when to take breaks and return to the station, and how many packages to deliver per 10-hour shift.
Lawyers are further culling through reports that Amazon monitors drivers in real-time, alerting contractors via text when drivers fall behind schedule and urging “rescue” to ensure that packages are delivered consistent with speed expectations. Drivers with too many rescues may be removed from routes--essentially, fired--or receive reduced pay. Drivers say that Amazon employees instruct them to disable monitoring during delivery times, essentially disregarding safety in favor of meeting stringent delivery quotas.
Identifying, interviewing, and deposing witnesses will add value to the case but will also increase up-front litigation costs.
Litigation is also sure to involve robust motions practice, as Amazon may, say, attempt to cast its algorithms and technology as protected trade secrets to shield them from disclosure. Litigating these motions could involve extensive research and a pricy battle of industry experts.
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