By Joel Rosenblatt | Bloomberg
Uber Technologies Inc. is headed to court to defend itself against a bicyclist “doored” by a driver’s vehicle on a busy street in bike-friendly San Francisco — the first such case to go to trial in California on claims that the company usually settles privately.
Edgard Velarde, 64, refused to settle out of court for injuries he alleges he sustained after being hit by the door of passenger exiting an Uber vehicle, turning down a $1 million offer from Uber in exchange for keeping quiet about the incident. Instead, he’s intent on bringing the case to a trial that’s set to start Thursday.
Uber tends to settle personal injury claims against its drivers out of court and public view. Velarde is seeking “many millions” in damages from Uber and promises to expose lies he says the rideshare company told him and details of the lack of training it provides to its drivers.
“Uber has told us they will not settle with us unless it’s a confidential settlement, so Velarde and I would have to give up our right to ever talk to anybody about what happened,” said Michael Stephenson, Velarde’s lawyer. “We aren’t willing to do that.”
Uber declined to comment on the lawsuit and cases like these can end up settling even after the trial begins. In court filings, it has argued that “Uber does not belong in this case.” Velarde is asking a jury to hold the company liable for injuries that are “completely untethered” from Uber or its app, the company said.
An ‘Unusual’ Case
San Francisco bills itself as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US. To encourage bike ridership, it has designated 464 miles (750 kilometers) of bicycle lanes, often painted bright green, throughout city streets.
Velardes’s lawsuit stems from an accident that occurred in 2018. The immigrant from Peru was biking home from his cafeteria job at a downtown San Francisco hotel when an Uber stopped ahead of him in a no-stopping zone. As he passed the car, Velarde was struck by the rear passenger door. Landing on his back, he says, his head hit the sidewalk. Though he was wearing a helmet, he sued Uber, arguing brain trauma has left him unable to work. The Uber driver left the scene, according to Stephenson.
Besides Velarde’s resistance to Uber’s demand that he remain quiet about the accident, Stephenson said he also believed the company owned him more than $1 million. In pretrial testimony, Velarde said he has drained his savings, lost his job and future income, and ability to support his family.
In its attempt to get the case thrown out, Uber argued in a court filing that Sharon Eric, the driver of the car Velarde was struck by, had pulled over close enough to the curb that he was surprised the bicyclist could pass him. Velarde nevertheless “attempted to squeeze through,” Uber said, adding that Eric didn’t tell his passenger, Aaron Mortensen, to open his door. Uber also argued there’s no evidence that Eric violated any law by dropping Mortensen off in the no-stopping lane.
“As someone who pays attention to settlements and verdicts to help us get the lay of the land, I’m not aware of Uber ever going to verdict in a personal injury case,” said Miles Cooper, a lawyer who has represented cyclists in personal injury lawsuits. “That makes this case unusual.”
A San Francisco judge last year rejected Uber’s request to dismiss the case, finding that the questions of where Eric decided to drop off his passengers, his failure to check the car mirrors or warn the passengers about how to exit his vehicle are facts for a jury to decide.
Eric, the owner of Prius that struck Velarde, and a co-defendant in the lawsuit against Uber and a witness in the trial, lives in Contra Costa County in the East Bay. In pretrial testimony that serves as a preview of what jurors are likely to hear at trial, Eric said that the safety information Uber imparts to its drivers is forgettable. When he signed up, Eric testified, Uber didn’t require him to attend any safety training or meetings, either in person or online.
“I don’t really recall any of that stuff,” Eric testified, in response to questions about what he absorbed from videos Uber provided on its app explaining how drivers should pick up, drive, and drop off passengers. “You don’t really have to watch it,” he said.
Julie Batz, a lawyer representing Eric, and Jerri Johnson, an attorney for Mortensen, didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Stephenson said Uber has repeatedly misled him, beginning with its claim five years ago that no drivers for the company were in the vicinity of the accident. Through court orders requiring the company to turn over information, Stephenson said, it turned out that there were eight Uber drivers in the area. Eventually he found Eric.
“It took us over three years to find this information that Uber had on day one,” Stephenson said.
In an unusual twist, Stephenson said, Velarde received a call and a letter from Lyft’s insurers asking about a claim he made with the ride share company. According to Stephenson, someone representing Uber lodged Velarde’s injury claim with its competitor, Lyft.
Lyft didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The case is Velarde v. Uber Technologies Inc., CGC-18-568674, California Superior Court (San Francisco).
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