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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Uber Claims It's Not to Blame for Death of 6-Year-Old Pedestrian on New Year's Eve (Update)

Posted By on Thu, Jan 2, 2014 at 7:30 AM

Update, 11:35 a.m.: Uber confirmed that Muzzafar was, indeed a contractor with the company. It's since deactivated his account. An Uber spokesman stressed, again, that Muzzafar was not "providing services through the Uber system" at the time he struck and killed a 6 year-old girl at Polk and Ellis Streets.

Update, 9:46 a.m.: Police release name and photo of the self-identified Uber driver (See bottom).

click to enlarge Girl killed, family injured in accident New Year's Eve. - CBS SAN FRANCISCO
  • CBS San Francisco
  • Girl killed, family injured in accident New Year's Eve.

It's been a rough year for Uber thus far.

Just four hours before the car-hire startup planned to ring in 2014 -- ideally with an onslaught of high-priced trips through San Francisco's bustling downtown corridor -- one of its contracted drivers allegedly hit a family in a Tenderloin crosswalk, killing a 6-year-old girl and critically injuring her mother and brother.

"There are no words to express the deep sadness and grief felt for young San Francisco resident, Sophia Liu," Supervisor Jane Kim wrote in a statement issued shortly after the young girl's death.

Suspect Syed Muzzafar, who allegedly hit a family in the crosswalk at Polk and Ellis Streets on New Year's Eve. - SFPD BOOKING PHOTO
  • SFPD Booking Photo
  • Suspect Syed Muzzafar, who allegedly hit a family in the crosswalk at Polk and Ellis Streets on New Year's Eve.

Kim added that the accident would have been "100 percent avoidable" had the driver followed basic traffic laws. She considered the incident a harbinger for app-based car-hire startups, indicating that it raises questions about driver training and compliance.

Meanwhile, Uber rushed to do damage control. A day after the accident, spokesman Andrew Noyes posted a blog on the company site, denying culpability.

"We work with transportation providers across the Bay Area, but we can confirm that this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system," Noyes wrote. Although the driver identified himself as an Uber contractor, according to Supervisor Kim, the company repeatedly tried to exonerate itself.

However, it also relied on equivocal language. While Noyes contends that the accident didn't occur during "an Uber trip," he avoided specifying whether the driver contracted with Uber. Nor did he clarify whether the driver had taken other "Uber trips" that night.

At the end of the blog, Noyes exhorted police to publicly identify the driver in question. "If the driver is, indeed, a partner of Uber, he or she will immediately be deactivated from using Uber technology," the spokesman assured.

Thus, Noyes launched a semantic counter-attack, while offering a missive that implies Uber doesn't know who's driving for it. Asked for further clarification, he copied-and-pasted the same blog statement in an e-mail.

A March accident involving an Uber driver led to contentious lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, in which the company also claimed no liability. In that case, Uber didn't deny having contracted with the driver; it simply argued that because the driver was a hired gun, rather than employee, the company shouldn't be held responsible.

That suit is still ongoing. If the company fails to disassociate itself from the New Year's Eve fatality, then its legal troubles are only beginning.

Update: San Francisco Police spokesman Gordon Shyy just released the name and booking photo of the man who told police he was an Uber driver. The suspect, 57 year-old Union City resident Syed Muzzafar, is charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. We are waiting to hear back from Uber as to whether or not Muzzafar contracts with the company.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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