If you spend time in Southern California's urban areas, you've probably noticed the abundance of rideshare scooters. Users pay a fee to ride the scooter from its resting place to their destination, where the scooter is then left for the next user to do the same. While the convenience of these scooters is easy to appreciate, their often haphazard resting places raise a pertinent question: who's liable when someone trips over one of these modern-day urban tumbleweeds? A recent California Court of Appeal decision in the case of Hacala v. Bird Rides, Inc. has provided some interesting clarification.
Hacala v. Bird: What Happened?
In 2017, Bird Rides, Inc. initiated its scooter rental service in Los Angeles, where the events giving rise to this case eventually took place. Bird's service operated on a "dockless" system, allowing users to rent and subsequently leave the scooters at various locations throughout the city.
On November 23, 2019, Plaintiff Sara Hacala and her daughter were on a City sidewalk just after twilight. The sidewalk was crowded with holiday shoppers, and Plaintiff did not see the back wheel of a Bird scooter sticking out from behind a trash can. She tripped on the scooter, fell, and "sustained serious physical injuries," according to her complaint. Plaintiff sued Bird and the City for negligence and other related claims. The trial court dismissed her complaint, stating that neither Bird nor the City had a duty of care toward Hacala. Dissatisfied with the outcome, Hacala appealed the decision.
The California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court's ruling in favor of the City but reversed the decision concerning Bird. This reversal was based on California Civil Code Section 1714, which mandates that property owners must exercise "ordinary care or skill in the management of [their] property." The court reasoned that even if Bird employees were not directly responsible for placing the scooter in the hazardous location, Bird could have implemented various measures to lessen the foreseeable risk of accidents. According to Hacala's complaint, such preventative measures could have included installing always-on flashing lights on the scooters to enhance their visibility at night.
The Court of Appeals made it clear that they were not making a specific factual determination regarding Bird's negligence. Rather, the court stated: “[w]e emphasize that our holding today is limited to a legal determination that Bird owed plaintiffs the general duty codified in section 1714 to use ordinary care in the management of its property.” As Hacala's complaint stated facts which plausibly suggested that Bird violated this general duty of care, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's dismissal as to Bird and remanded the case back to the trial court so that the factual question of negligence could be decided through a trial by jury.
What This Means Going Forward
The Court's decision allows Hacala’s case to proceed and opens the door for similar lawsuits against electric scooter companies in California. It emphasizes that companies like Bird have a duty to ensure their business operations do not create public hazards, thus setting a precedent for future cases.
While the decision doesn't render Bird automatically liable, it certainly places a legal onus on such companies to manage their scooters with greater care to mitigate risks to the public moving forward.