The company’s algorithms were blamed for a crash that paralyzed an aspiring doctor. Amazon says it’s not liable.
Ans Rana was in the back seat of his brother’s Tesla Model S when they stopped behind a disabled car just before 9 p.m. on Atlanta’s busy Interstate 75. Seconds later, a blue Amazon.com Inc. delivery van slammed into them from behind—mangling the rear of the car and sending Rana, his brother and father to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital. Rana bore the brunt of the collision, suffering life-changing brain and spinal-cord injuries.
The 24-year-old spent months clinging to life, a ventilator helping him breathe, his family unsure if he’d ever leave the hospital. He slowly recovered enough to be released and now lives with a sister who looks after him. Rana gets around in a motorized wheelchair, unable to do simple tasks such as feeding himself, changing channels with a remote control or playing video games. The March 15 crash dashed his dreams of attending medical school, and the once-aspiring doctor is now focused on his own recovery, unsure if he’ll walk again or regain control of his arms.
In June, Rana filed a lawsuit in Georgia state court, alleging that Amazon is liable for the accident. Central to the complaint: the algorithms, apps and devices the company uses to manage its sprawling logistics operation.
Amazon says it isn’t legally culpable because the driver worked for Harper Logistics LLC, one of thousands of small businesses launched in recent years specifically to deliver Amazon packages. By focusing on the key role played by the algorithms, Rana’s attorney, Scott Harrison, is looking to prove that the company controls the operation, managing everything from how many packages drivers must deliver to whether they should be kept on or fired. Demonstrating Amazon isn’t just a customer of Harper Logistics, but actually manages it from afar, is critical to any attempt to put the e-commerce giant on the hook for Rana’s medical bills and a lifetime of diminished earnings.
Amazon closely tracks delivery drivers’ every move, the lawsuit states, including “backup monitoring, speed, braking, acceleration, cornering, seatbelt usage, phone calls, texting, in-van cameras that use artificial intelligence to detect for yawning, and more.” If drivers fall behind schedule, Amazon employees send text messages “complaining that a certain driver is ‘behind the rabbit’ and needs to be ‘rescued’ to ensure that all the packages on Amazon’s route are delivered in compliance with Amazon’s unrealistic and dangerous speed expectations.”
Most commercial vehicle injury lawsuits are settled quietly between attorneys and insurance carriers. Rana’s case stands out for the severity of his injuries and his legal team’s argument that Amazon’s technological hold over its delivery partners makes it culpable in the crash. The team wants greater visibility into how Amazon’s machines control drivers to bolster its case that the company is responsible. Such court disclosures would expose Amazon’s secretive algorithms to greater public scrutiny. Amazon wants the court to seal any such information, arguing its technology should qualify as protected trade secrets. Proving the company is responsible for the crash is far from assured because the laws on employment vary from state to state and courts have gone both ways, said Andrew Elmore, a University of Miami law professor. “The question is whether Amazon is vicariously liable as an employer because of the control it has over the driver,” he said. “It had a lot of control, and it could be held liable.”
If Rana does prevail, the legal strategy could inform the growing number of complaints against the company’s delivery arm, Amazon Logistics, which has been a defendant in at least 119 motor vehicle injury lawsuits in 35 states so far this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s more than four times as many in all of 2020 and doesn’t cover this year’s holiday shopping season, when Amazon and its delivery drivers are busiest.
A Texas couple alleged they were injured in a February crash with an Amazon delivery van in Dallas and sought more than $1 million in damages (that case has been dismissed). A Wilford, Massachusetts, man filed suit after suffering brain injuries during a head-on collision in January with a delivery van. The driver allegedly fell asleep and drifted across a double-yellow line into oncoming traffic. Amazon has not yet responded to that lawsuit, which was filed in September. Personal injury lawyers around the country are advertising their expertise to people hurt in crashes with Amazon delivery contractors.
Amazon has invested more than $1 billion in technology, pay and training programs to improve the safety of its delivery operation, company spokeswoman Maria Boschetti said in an email. More than half of the U.S. fleet has been fitted with video cameras and other technologies that give drivers “real-time alerts to help them stay safe.” The investments helped significantly decrease accidents, stop sign and signal violations, driving without a seatbelt and distracted driving, she said.
Amazon is “committed to the safety of drivers and the communities where we deliver” and works closely with its delivery partners to “set realistic expectations that do not place undue pressure on them or their delivery associates,” Boschetti said.
She didn’t dispute Bloomberg’s tally of the increase in motor vehicle injury lawsuits filed against the company, but said Amazon’s “accident rate,” which measures the number of incidents against total miles driven, is down in the first nine months of this year when compared with the same period in 2020. Boschetti declined to share the accident rate.