Atlanta taxi death case underscores scandal of our taxi fleet
Today the Georgia DOT settled for $600,000 a hotly contested wrongful death case that included claims of negligent right of way maintenance by the City of Hapeville, negligent highway design by GDOT, negligent taxi inspection by the City of Atlanta, and a taxi operating with bald tires on a rain slick roadway.
The more significant fact barely mentioned in the news story is the scandalous lack of safety accountability in Atlanta’s taxi fleet. Every day thousands of travelers take taxi cabs from the airport, blissfully unaware of the inadequacy of safety inspections or financial accountability in Atlanta’s taxi industry.
The city government has sovereign immunity with regard to negligent inspection of taxis, so there is no accountability to innocent victims when a city government lets a cab get by inspection with bald tires.
From the beginning of taxi service in Atlanta, cabbies have operated as independent contractors for the brand name taxi companies, with minimal liability insurance.
Last year, in the case of Lopez v. El Palmar Taxi, Inc., 297 Ga. App. 121 (2009), the Court of Appeals ruled once again that a taxi company is not vicariously liable for the negligence of its "independent contractor" driver who operated a taxi with the company’s logo, picking up passengers who called the company, and following the company’s rules, because the driver was deemed to be an independent contractor. At least in that case, the court allowed the case to go to the jury on a theory of apparent agency. However, a cab company can evade accountability under that legal theory simply by posting on and in the cab a subtle statement that the driver is an independent contractor.
Compounding the scandal is that taxi cabs in Georgia are only required to carry the minimum liability insurance required of all passenger cars, $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident. Thus, a business traveler arriving at the Atlanta airport and taking a taxi downtown, who suffers a disabling injury due to even gross negligence of the cab driver or in the maintenance of the cab, can only recover $25,000. If that business traveler is killed, his or her survivors may be unable to recover more than $25,000 from the taxi’s insurer.
By contrast, intrastate motor carriers who merely haul freight must have $100,000 liability insurance, and interstate motor carriers hauling freight must have at least $750,000 liability coverage. Moreover, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations prohibited trucking companies from hiding behind the "independent contractor" dodge since 1956.
My advice to visitors to our city arriving at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is to avoid taking a taxi. Either arrange to be picked up by a limo service, or take the MARTA train as I usually do. When I came in from the west coast on a redeye flight Monday morning, MARTA was a clean, pleasant, convenient and cheap way to get to the Medical Center station where my wife picked me up.
Ken Shigley, author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice, is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, and has been listed as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), among the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. He practices law at the Atlanta law firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard, and has broad experience in catastrophic personal injury, spinal cord injury, wrongful death, products liability, brain injury and burn injury cases. He is also president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia. This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.