Accidents happen. Every person who drives or rides in a car is statistically likely to be involved in a few accidents during the course of their lifetime. However, there are some circumstances that raise the odds and some driver behaviors that raise the risk for the average motorist.
That’s the claim being made by a North Carolina motorcyclist whose leg was amputated as a result of a crash with an Amazon delivery truck.
Motorcyclist Justin Hartley was driving south on Blackwater Road in Virginia Beach when he collided with a rented Hertz truck with an Amazon logo. The truck turned directly into Hartley’s lane of travel and struck him, resulting in severe injuries. His leg was not able to be saved and was amputated below the knee.
The Amazon delivery driver acknowledged that he was looking at GPS directions on his Amazon-supplied navigation device at the time of the crash.
What could make Amazon liable for the crash?
Amazon drivers (including those who drive for Amazon Logistics) are required to use the company’s proprietary Flex App, which manages each aspect of the route—from the directions to when to take a break or have lunch to when the driver is due back at the station.
If the driver is too slow, Amazon will text the driver and inform them they're running behind. The packages must be delivered according to the company’s time expectations, regardless of weather or other factors. The driver’s pay could be reduced if they fall behind the schedule too frequently.
Therefore, the lawsuit alleges that the app and the schedule demands create a risk that the driver will be speeding, distracted or otherwise cutting safety corners in order to ensure they get their packages delivered on time.
But... is Amazon liable, or is the driver at fault?
It’s likely that this case will hinge on this issue. Usually, an employer has vicarious liability for the actions of its employees.
It will become important to know whether the driver was an Amazon employee or an independent contractor. If it’s the latter, then the key will be the degree of control that Amazon has over his performance of his job duties. If the company is closely monitoring and controlling the agent’s behavior while on the job, it’s likely that Amazon could be held liable for this accident.
As law professor Iria Giuffrida put it, “The more technology you have, the more your finger is practically on the pulse of the driver, and the closer the relationship between the company and the driver is.” (source)
Hartley’s claim for damages
Hartley was an inpatient at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for an extended period of time. He had surgeries on his leg and a wrist, and he endures continuing rehabilitation. He is no longer able to work at his previous job as a welder.
Hartley is facing “several hundred thousand dollars of medical expenses,” according to the lawsuit, in addition to being unable to provide for his family and engage in the activities he used to enjoy.
Negligence and liability
The Hartley case is still pending, so as of this writing, we don’t yet know the outcome.
But the case does raise some interesting issues about negligence and liability, and it could set a precedent for future similar cases. With online shopping booming, delivery trucks are ubiquitous, and the more trucks are on the road, the more accidents will happen. It's not just Amazon, either—with UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service all making deliveries, more retailer-based trucks are in your neighborhood than ever before.
Liability has 2 prongs in this instance:
- It depends on the evidence and the facts of the accident, just like any collision would. Experts will reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the crash and determine who was at fault.
- If the accident is the fault of the Amazon driver, then the courts will evaluate whether liability rests on the driver as an individual or whether Amazon is liable.
Hartley can recover damages from the liable party if he can establish that they were negligent in causing the crash.
In order to prove negligence, a plaintiff must show the following:
- The defendant had a duty to either act or not act in a specific way.
- The defendant breached their duty.
- Breach of that duty was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
- The defendant should have foreseen the likelihood that someone would be harmed by their action or inaction.
- The injury resulted in actual damages (cost of medical treatment, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.).
In this instance, the Amazon driver had a duty to every other road user to drive safely and avoid causing an accident. (This is true for every driver, all the time.) If it’s determined that he swerved into Hartley’s lane, as the claim alleges, then he breached that duty. As a licensed driver, he should have foreseen (anticipated) that making an unsafe turn or lane change could cause an accident.
The accident caused Hartley to be injured in a way that resulted in financial costs.
North Carolina pure contributory negligence rule
Every state in the U.S. follows 1 of 4 fault systems. These rules determine how much (or if) you can recover damages for a personal injury.
In some states, even if the injured person had some liability for the accident, they can still recover damages, but the amount is reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff’s fault.
For example, in a car accident case where the defendant was at fault, but the plaintiff could’ve acted differently, in a way that would have avoided the collision, the court would evaluate what percent was the plaintiff’s fault. If the plaintiff was found to be 10 percent liable, their damage award would be reduced by 10 percent.
But that’s not how it works in North Carolina.
North Carolina is 1 of 5 states that follows the pure contributory negligence rule. If the plaintiff has any fault for the accident, they aren’t allowed to receive any damages.
This is one angle that Amazon’s legal team is pursuing in the Hartley case; the question of whether he had any liability for the accident has been raised and will affect the outcome of the claim.
When should you call a North Carolina personal injury lawyer?
If you were injured in an accident, one of your 1st calls should be to a North Carolina personal injury lawyer. Because of the shared fault rules, a lawyer will be the best person to minimize your liability for any accident.
A large company like Amazon has deep pockets and extensive legal teams and resources. They don’t want the expense or publicity of a trial or ongoing legal battle, so they might make you a lowball settlement offer just to make the claim “disappear.”
But if you were severely injured—like Mr. Hartley was—in a way that is life-changing and has long-term financial repercussions and future medical treatments, it’s probably not in your best interest to accept the 1st settlement offer. Your lawyer has experience determining exactly how much you are owed and will work with medical, financial and actuarial professionals who can calculate not just your expenses now—but your future costs, as well.