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California’s Surge in E-Scooter Injuries is Affecting the Personal Injury Arena

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249 emergency room visits in Southern California resulted from e-scooter accidents between September of 2017 and August of 2018. That figure is the result of a study which examined medical records from two UCLA hospitals in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Most of the injured riders (91.6 percent) experienced either a fall off the scooter, a crash into another object, or being hit by a vehicle/object. Only 4.4 percent of those injured riders were wearing helmets, and two of the cases landed in the intensive care unit. Since the study was released in January, many additional California cities have made rentable e-scooters available to the public. That availability has resulted in an increased number of injuries, and personal injury attorneys are being overwhelmed with inquiries seeking to file lawsuits for damages.

Consumer Reports found that since the fall of 2017 at least eight people have died with over 1,500 injured, some of whom have been left paralyzed. Major scooter rental companies such as Bird and Lime now have over 85,000 scooters in various cities throughout the U.S. But as these companies continue to grow, so do the number of reported injuries, resulting in a quandary over who assumes liability for such damages.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has cautioned that scooter patrons should be aware that insurance standards for e-scooter companies vary from city-to-city. Both Bird and Lime have rental agreements that stipulate “riders relieve the company of liability.” Lime’s user agreement is 262 screen shots long, and Bird’s is 58 screen shots. In spite of this, a wave of lawsuits could put the scooter company rental agreements to the test. Personal injury attorneys maintain that the rules related to e-scooters are inadequately lax, and are working to ensure that injured riders are made whole in court.

Last year, a proposed class-action suit in California state court against Bird and Lime was filed, along with a handful of individual lawsuits, alleging gross negligence. But the class-action complaint was filed on behalf of those individuals injured by scooter riders, rather than on behalf of any riders. The plaintiffs alleged the scooter companies “knew and/or should have known that their scooters are, would become and would continue to be an unsafe, dangerous and damaging public nuisance.”For scooter riders, however, suing the companies after they have waived their liability can be challenging.

Beverly Hills attorney, Tamara Kurtzman, who has been representing personal injury victims for over 25 years, told the Los Angeles Times in January that, “It’s an extremely uphill battle, which is more disappointing because real people are getting hurt,” adding, “That’s the tragedy in this story.” But as the number of scooter accidents throughout California continues to rise, particularly in the Los Angeles-area, where approximately 36,000 scooters are now registered to eight companies across the city, personal injury firms continue to be flooded with calls from prospective clients seeking damages.

Catherine Lerer, a Santa-Monica-based personal injury attorney, reported to LAMag.com earlier this year that the firm she runs with her husband had received between 200 and 300 calls about scooter-related accidents, noting that they were handling between 60 and 70 individual cases. Several additional personal injury firms have also reported pursuing scooter suits this year. Ultimately, whether or not the injured parties prevail in court against the scooter companies may come down to the lack of certainty over what, specifically, is causing the injuries.

Bird and Lime, along with virtually every other scooter rental company, have publicly stated that the safety of their riders is their first priority. But without any instructions for how to use the vehicles being provided by the companies (riders must simply download an app and add a credit card to gain access), personal injury attorneys believe alleging gross negligence is appropriate, given the inherent danger in operating the scooters, which can travel over 25 miles per hour. However, that particular argument on behalf of the injured may be minor compared another complaint that could prove quite challenging for e-scooter companies to defend.

Reports of equipment failure are becoming more frequently reported, and attorney, Catherine Lerer, asserts that the scooters are “not well maintained, they’re breaking down.” Lerer also stated that, “The most common call we get is when a rider is injured because a throttle sticks.”

Such claims of a throttle sticking (frequently while traveling at top speed) have skyrocketed recently, and resulted in a number of horrific injuries. Additionally, some cities require companies to implement geo-fencing, which causes e-scooters to slow down in busy areas with large groups of pedestrians. But the geo-fenced areas are not marked with any sign postings, which means the scooters suddenly slow down when entering, but then speed up automatically upon leaving the zones, without warning to the riders. That, according to personal injury attorneys, is an example of negligence.

Scooter companies have denied liability, citing the fact that riders receive a text message alerting them to when they are entering and exiting the geo-fenced zones. But personal injury attorneys contend that such a defense is woefully inadequate, noting that riders should be focusing on operating the scooters, and shouldn’t be expected to check their cell phones when riding.

Several California cities, including Los Angeles, have banned riders from operating e-scooters on sidewalks. Though the move is intended to benefit the safety of pedestrians, personal injury attorneys note that with scooter riders sharing the roads with cars and bikes, there is a definite potential for the number of severe injury cases to multiply. As city and state legislation is amended to keep up with our changing modes of transportation, e-scooter rental companies will almost certainly continue to maintain that they carry no liability for such accidents. Personal injury attorneys, however, continue to be inundated with calls from injury victims, and are moving forward with taking on more and more cases, filing lawsuits alleging gross negligence on the part of said companies.

The initial outcomes of such lawsuits will undoubtedly have a ripple effect throughout the world of personal injury law, and could spark a wave of future claims if verdicts are reached in favor of the plaintiffs.