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Under Illinois law, what duty of care is owed by common carriers to their passengers?

And does that duty apply to ride-sharing companies (Uber, Lyft and such) for passengers who ride in vehicles owned and operated by drivers who were hooked up to the passenger through such companies?

We’ve chatted about ride-sharing companies before, but a recent Illinois appellate court has rendered a ruling on this particular question.

Common carriers are cab companies, bus companies, commercial trains, planes and even elevators. In other words, a carrier that serves the general public in transportation.

Those entities owe a high duty of care for the safety of their passengers. This means the slightest deviation of that standard of care which results in injury to the passenger can expose the carrier to paying compensation to the injured person.

The reason behind the public policy of requiring such high care is that common carriers have unique control over their passengers’ safety. This also means that a carrier can be liable for its agents’ intentional acts of harm to passengers (assault, battery, false imprisonment). This is true, though such conduct is outside the scope of the employment relationship between the agent and the carrier (part of the duties of the cab driver toward the driver’s employer is not to assault the cab passengers).

Illinois law has even extended the high duty of care beyond common carriers to school buses, even though they are not for common use by the public. Courts have reasoned that children on school buses are the most vulnerable members of society, and thus it is ludicrous to give them less protection than adults on public buses.

But here is the rub.

The Illinois legislature passed a law saying that ride-sharing companies are declared to not be common carriers.

Thus, no liability for drivers assaulting passengers.

A passenger has sued Lyft for a sexual assault allegedly committed upon her by a driver that she connected with through Lyft. The passenger is challenging the constitutionality of such law.

The appellate court in her case ruled that ride-sharing companies are not common carriers under that legislative act. The question then became: Is that law shielding ride-sharing companies from common carrier status invalid under the Illinois Constitution as special legislation or equal protection violation?

Nope, said the appellate court.

The business model and existing technology justified legislation to exempt them, but not traditional taxicabs, from common carrier status. The legislation, said the court, is rationally related to promoting a regulatory environment allowing the ride-sharing industry to flourish in Illinois.

The court further noted that apparently the General Assembly felt that to allow liability for the intentional acts of the drivers on ride-sharing companies (as is done with cab companies) would unduly burden an industry that relies to a large extent on non-professional and part-time drivers to increase the supply of on-demand transportation services available to the public.

The Lyft case has now been lifted for a ruling before the Illinois Supreme Court.

That court will be the final arbiter to decide if it was constitutional for the General Assembly to conclude that it’s more vital to protect ride-sharing companies with the highest degree of money-making ability than it is to protect passengers with the highest degree of care from being raped.

Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Inc. Send questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820.

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