People Are Using Ubers As Ambulances — And Drivers Hate It
By Caroline O’Donovan
February 26, 2018
Mike Fish was driving for Uber 10 minutes outside of Boston when he picked up a second passenger in his Uber Pool who, he said, seemed “out of it, drowsy — almost sedated.”
When the drowsy passenger asked him if Boston’s Mass General hospital was the nearest emergency room, “that set off a red flag,” Fish told BuzzFeed News. “I said, ‘Do you need the ER?’ He said yes. It came out that, over the last few days, he’d been passing out and losing consciousness.”
But instead of calling an ambulance to get the urgent medical attention he needed, the sick passenger called an Uber Pool. The shared ride would save him a few bucks, but it meant he’d have to wait for Fish to drop off the first passenger before he’d get to the ER.
“I was a little nervous,” Fish said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Ride-hail drivers are, by and large, untrained, self-employed workers driving their own cars on a part-time basis. They’re not medical professionals. But as health care costs have risen and ride-hail has become more pervasive, people are increasingly relying on Uber and Lyft drivers to get them to the hospital when they need emergency care.
A recent (yet to be peer-reviewed) study found that, after Uber enters new markets, the rates of ambulance rides typically go down, meaning fewer people call professionals in favor of the cheaper option. People have always taken taxis to the hospital — there’s the classic example of the woman going into labor in the back of a cab — but ride-hail technology makes it much easier, especially in less densely populated cities. This money-saving tactic might make sense for people in noncritical condition, but it puts ride-hail drivers in an uncomfortable position. They’re forced to choose between assuming potential legal liability if something goes wrong, or dealing with a sense of guilt and the fear of getting a lower rating if they decline or cancel the ride.
Fish didn’t have much of a choice about taking the man to the emergency room — by the time he learned where the rider was going and why, they were already on their way. This happens frequently. But in another instance, Fish willingly agreed to take someone to the ER, a restaurant kitchen worker who’d sliced his hand open while working.
“With Boston traffic, it was probably quicker than calling an ambulance. If you call an Uber, chances are there’s going to be one within a block or two. An ambulance won’t be as close,” Fish said. “I’m not recommending people do that, but in that case, it worked out pretty well. I got him there in six minutes, and he didn’t need attention from a paramedic, so that actually ended up being pretty efficient.”
But legal professor and gig economy observer Veena Dubal told BuzzFeed News that by allowing the injured man into his car and pressing the button to start the ride, Fish may have exposed himself to serious legal liability.
“You’re not liable if you refuse to take them,” Dubal said. “You’re under no legal obligation to care for them until they get in your car, and then you’re a proprietor conducting business.”
If Uber drivers were employees of Uber, then Uber would be liable if something bad happened to a passenger en route to the hospital. But because drivers are independent contractors, they could be held responsible for any failure to provide care during the business transaction.
“There have been cases where business owners haven’t protected people from violence who walk onto their property, and the courts have said there’s a special relationship between the business owner and customer, and the business owner acted negligently by not keeping the customer safe,” Dubal said. “In this case, the business owner would be the Uber driver, once the rider gets into the car.”
As independent contractors, Uber and Lyft drivers can turn down any ride that makes them uncomfortable. The companies also charge riders for cleaning fees and repay drivers for the expense, though drivers say this process is a major headache that can take weeks. Both companies said low ratings or demerits for canceling on a rider experiencing a medical emergency could be expunged from a driver’s record.
“Uber is not a substitute for law enforcement or medical professionals,” an Uber spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “In the event of any medical emergency, we encourage people to call 911.”