Amazon sued over crashes by drivers rushing to make deliveries

By Spencer Soper |  Bloomberg

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 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.

Read more: Amazon triples Southern California delivery hubs to get packages out faster

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 Amazon is liable for the accident. Central to the complaint: the algorithms, apps and devices the company uses to manage its sprawling logistics operation.

Read more: The next kink in the supply chain: Warehouses

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.”

Photographs of Ans Rana before the car accident hang on his bedroom wall in Marietta. Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

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.

Amazon unveiled its Delivery Service Partner program in 2018, inviting aspiring entrepreneurs to start package delivery firms with as little as $10,000 and saying they could earn as much as $300,000 a year. The idea was to reduce Amazon’s reliance on United Parcel Service Inc. and the U.S. Postal Service. Harper Logistics formed that same year and is among some 2,500 delivery service partners that employ more than 260,000 drivers in the U.S. and around the world.

Amazon faces a particularly daunting challenge this Christmas season, when production constraints, supply snags and soaring labor costs have made it harder to quickly get products to customers’ homes. The company warned last month that mounting expenses could wipe out this year’s holiday profits altogether.

A line of delivery trucks leaves a new Amazon “last-mile” distribution center in Anaheim. The e-commerce giant. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The scramble has put extra pressure on Amazon’s delivery contractors. In discussions previously reported by Bloomberg, many Amazon contractors echoed points raised in Rana’s lawsuit, saying that they’re beholden to an automated system that puts delivery performance ahead of safety and punishes drivers—even sometimes dinging them for driving offenses they didn’t commit.

Delivery firms say Amazon needs to take their complaints more seriously, set more reasonable delivery targets and tailor expectations to local conditions. Amazon drivers fail to complete their deliveries in the allotted time in about one in 10 trips, according to the company. Routes vary by geography and customer demand, but typically have about 250 packages.

“We recognize that there are many hundreds of thousands of routes that are run every week and our systems cannot account for every single obstacle that drivers face every day, so we launched a mechanism this year for drivers to report outlier routes so that we can work to quickly rectify them,” Boschetti said.

The company designs and assigns routes and determines how many deliveries each driver should be able to accomplish in a 10-hour shift. It monitors each driver’s performance via smartphone app, cameras and other hardware installed in Amazon-branded delivery vans. The company can tell the delivery partners to take drivers it deems too slow off the road, essentially firing them. Rana’s lawsuit argues that such practices made Amazon negligent in the crash because they “forced drivers to rush to the point it was unsafe” and “focused on speed and delivery efficiency without giving due consideration to the safety of the public.” The delivery van was traveling 67.73 miles per hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone at the moment of impact, the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint also says Amazon recruits drivers and refers them to the delivery firms, conducts training on company property and requires all drivers to use the Flex app that “micromanages every imaginable aspect of delivering the packages.” Drivers are also required to wear Amazon uniforms decorated with the company’s logo and name.

Delivery accidents are a global problem not unique to Amazon. Drivers for UPS and FedEx Corp. are involved in hundreds of crashes each year in the U.S. alone, according to the federal Department of Transportation. Most Amazon delivery van crashes aren’t reported to the agency since the vehicles weigh less than the 10,000-pound threshold that requires reporting. Amazon also differs by outsourcing so much of its logistics operations, including liability insurance, and relying on contractors that don’t even own their fleets. Harrison notes that Harper Logistics, the company that employed the driver, 23-year-old Bryan Williams, carries just $1 million in coverage. Rana’s medical bills alone have exceeded $2 million, according to the complaint, and the severity of his injuries means he could have to shoulder medical expenses for the rest of his life and require financial support if he can’t work.

An employee sorts parcels in the outbound dock at the Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

The lawsuit also names Williams, Harper Logistics and the delivery business’s insurance provider, Old Republic Insurance Co., all of whom declined to comment through their joint attorney, Paul Trainor. Williams, who made about $15 an hour, presumably lacks the financial wherewithal to pay damages. Harper Logistics doesn’t have many assets that could be liquidated to pay a judgment. Amazon delivery businesses don’t even own their vans; they lease them. Amazon, which is expected to generate sales of $472 billion this year, is a much richer target.

Rana’s brother, Ali Kamran, 31, said he was certain he, his father and brother were all going to die after the Amazon van sent his Tesla spinning into another lane on Interstate 75. Another car hit his and he briefly lost consciousness, he said. Kamran was the first to come to. His father and brother were both bleeding and unresponsive. Kamran told bystanders to call 911 and composed himself enough to put his skills as an emergency room doctor to work. Determining that his 69-year-old father was alive, Kamran turned to his brother. Rana was pushed to the middle of the car, his head slumped awkwardly. Kamran rubbed his body and called to him.

Bystanders wrested open the driver’s side door. Kamran carefully cradled his brother’s head while they removed him from the mangled wreck. “I was just screaming his name, ‘Ans, please talk to me!’ I wasn’t even sure if he was alive,” he said in an interview. When they freed Rana from the car, he was taking shallow breaths and complaining of a sore neck, his brother said. Medical crews arrived and loaded Rana and his father into ambulances. Kamran stayed behind and spoke with police officers before seeking medical attention himself. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” he said in an interview.

Williams, the van driver, was following the Tesla too closely, according to the Marietta police department that investigated the crash. Rana’s attorneys have requested the driver’s toxicology report. They allege in their lawsuit that he acknowledged a “history of problems with illegal drugs” in his employment screening process, but that Harper Logistics and Amazon hired him and put him behind the wheel anyway without adequate follow-up.

Ans Rana in Marietta on Oct. 20. Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

Amazon isn’t the first company accused of endangering the public by pledging to get products to customers quickly. In 1993, a jury awarded a St. Louis woman $78 million in punitive damages after a driver delivering a Domino’s Pizza order ran a red light and struck her car, causing head and spinal injuries. The case involved a franchise that employed the driver, but the jury still held the parent company responsible — and Domino’s abandoned a 30-minute pizza delivery guarantee.

Almost three decades later, laws regarding “co-employment” vary from state to state and remain murky when an employee of a franchise or independent contractor hurts someone while doing work that primarily benefits a bigger corporation, said Elmore, the University of Miami professor.

Rana was set to take his Medical College Admissions Test shortly after the crash. He and his brother had been planning his study schedule and how to prepare for a medical career. Now his brother is helping oversee his recovery. Rana fought off pneumonia when he was being weaned off the ventilator. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, his family could only see him one person at a time during daytime hospital visiting hours. He currently sees only close relatives and health-care providers, to shield him from the coronavirus and looming flu season.

Rana previously had an active lifestyle and misses playing sports and video games with his friends. He gets migraines and sometimes his legs feel cold “like standing in snow.” He feels guilty for burdening his family, which tends to him by helping him out of bed each day, washing his face, brushing his teeth, combing his hair and driving him to his rehabilitation appointments. He tries to remain positive about small signs of progress, like being able to turn on the light in his room, but it’s hard to remain optimistic when he mulls his future.

“I have lost my legs, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” he said. “It’s just a lot to deal with mentally.”