Policy

An Uber crash derailed this rider’s life. How much should Uber pay?

"You entice the passenger into the car, you charge them on the way out and take no responsibility for what happens in between."

Dominoes with Uber's logo on it.

Uber’s best defense all around the world is that its drivers aren’t actually Uber employees, and the company has spent millions of dollars fighting to ensure they stay that way.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Anthony Nwosisi has already lost his health, his job and his home — and he blames Uber for all of it.

Nwosisi was on a trip in November 2019, visiting family in Nigeria. He was hours away from catching a flight back to the Netherlands, where he has lived since 2008, when his Uber driver, who Nwosisi says had been fiddling with his phone, crashed into the car in front of him. Nwosisi’s ears were already ringing from the first collision when another car ran into his Uber from behind. By the time he got to the airport later that day, the pain radiating through his body was so bad he could barely lift his own suitcase.

Nwosisi reported the accident through the Uber app, ignoring the driver’s pleas not to tell Uber. “I can’t move my neck. I am having difficulty turning. And it is worsening [by] the moment,” he wrote in one message, according to a screenshot reviewed by Protocol. The pain, which spread to Nwosisi’s groin and down his legs, has to this day prevented him from ever returning to his fairly physical job working for Mitsubishi through a temp agency.

But despite more than two years of efforts, Nwosisi has never received a cent from Uber.

Instead, he’s been bounced around three different insurance agencies on two different continents. Nwosisi has been told by Uber that it's not liable in the Netherlands for an accident that happened in Nigeria, while also being offered settlements from Uber’s Dutch lawyer that would barely cover his legal fees, let alone his medical bills and loss of income. He’s been picked apart by doctors and a medical examiner and has had everything from his mental health to his sex life scrutinized.

And along the way, Uber has reminded him time and time again that it doesn’t think of itself as a transportation company at all. As one Uber executive put it in an email, the company merely “provides digital lead generation services.”

“I think that this is inhuman. I think that this is wicked,” Nwosisi said.

With his options seemingly exhausted, Nwosisi and his lawyer are now preparing to take Uber to court, arguing that Uber is responsible for passengers’ safety and for the errors their drivers make, wherever they are in the world.

Nwosisi is hardly the first person to try to hold Uber accountable for injuries suffered during a ride. The company is currently facing a $63 million lawsuit from a Boston rider who became quadriplegic after an Uber accident. Uber drivers have also called attention to the gaps in insurance coverage when their app is on, but they don’t have a passenger in the car. But Nwosisi’s case raises another question about how Uber’s promise to protect passengers holds up when they’re traveling in far-flung parts of the globe. It’s a story that underscores the real-world consequences of tech companies’ global expansion and how their safety nets can fray as they are stretched thin around the world.

Uber declined to comment on the particulars of Nwosisi’s case or his specific claims against the company, but documents and correspondence Nwosisi shared with Protocol lay out the company’s arguments. In a statement, Lorraine Onduru, Uber’s spokesperson for East and West Africa, said, “We are taking it very seriously and have proposed a solution."

“We want drivers and riders to have peace of mind even when the unexpected happens, which is why Uber maintains auto insurance on their behalf that is designed for ridesharing activity via the Uber app,” Onduru said. “There’s nothing more critical than the safety of the people we serve.”

'Insurance on every trip'

Uber makes billions of dollars helping shuffle riders around the world. Sometimes, that includes parts of the world that are very far from those riders’ homes. And when it does this, it promises passengers that they’re protected with “insurance on every trip.” It says so right on the website. Technically speaking at least, that’s true: Uber works with insurance carriers in the countries where it does business to offer insurance to both passengers and drivers during the course of a ride. But it turns out that protection can be both incomplete and hard to cash in on.

Uber’s insurance coverage for passengers varies dramatically from country to country, which becomes tricky for users who are traveling internationally. In the U.S., for example, passengers are eligible for up to $1,000,000 in claims. In Nigeria, the coverage limit is a fraction of that — the equivalent of just under $5,000 for death and under $1,500 for medical expenses. That wouldn’t go very far in the Netherlands, even if Nwosisi had been eligible for the full payout — which AXA Mansard, Uber's insurance partner in Nigeria, claimed he wasn’t.

Nwosisi and AXA exchanged increasingly contentious emails for a year — messages that would be funny if they hadn’t been so maddening for Nwosisi. In December 2019, for example, an AXA agent insisted Nwosisi hadn’t sent a copy of his medical report for processing, only to later admit he found it in his junk folder. But that wasn’t much help: The report was written in Dutch. The agent said AXA wouldn’t process it unless it was in English.

About a month after the accident, AXA offered Nwosisi about 460 euros to pay for his medical bills. At the time, Nwosisi was still out of work, in pain and seeing a variety of doctors, hoping for a diagnosis — and more importantly, a remedy. Accepting the money would have required Nwosisi to absolve AXA of all future claims, which he wasn’t willing to do.

“My injuries are real, as are the damages,” Nwosisi wrote back, turning the money down.

In the meantime, there was the loss of income to address. Uber told Nwosisi he’d have to take that up with the driver’s insurance. Tracking down that company, Nicon Insurance, was its own challenge, which Nwosisi said required him to send his brother in Nigeria to visit Nicon’s offices in person. In January 2020 — two months after the accident — Nwosisi received a letter back from Nicon delivering more bad news: The driver had no coverage for passengers when he was driving for Uber.

To Nwosisi, the circuitous series of hurdles leading to dead ends made a mockery of the promise Uber had made to keep him safe. “This is a drop in the ocean for Uber,” he said. “All this stuff is humiliating.”

AXA did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment. Uber’s Onduru told Protocol, “Uber does not make any decisions when it comes to claim compensation. Our insurance partner is a separate entity and its own company.”

'Fuck off. Good luck with your case.'

After nearly a year spent talking to doctors and seeking medical relief, in November 2020 Nwosisi sent an update of his medical bills to Uber’s insurance agent. This time, the agent told Nwosisi that Uber itself was taking over and that AXA Mansard was “not meant to meddle in the claim anymore.”

Uber’s director of Insurance Litigation in the Netherlands sent a letter soon after denying any liability. “Uber and its affiliated Uber group entities do not provide transportation services,” it read. But the Uber exec suggested the company might be willing to “resolve this matter informally” anyway.

Anthony Nwosisi Anthony NwosisiPhoto: Courtesy of Anthony Nwosisi

Nwosisi decided to lawyer up too — this time, closer to home.

Most legal battles over traffic accidents have to happen in the country where an accident takes place — in this case, Nigeria. But Joran Wildeboer, a Dutch personal injury attorney with a self-described “weak spot for difficult clients and weird cases,” saw a promising wrinkle in Nwosisi’s story: Nwosisi had signed up for Uber in the Netherlands, meaning he’d agreed to the platform’s Dutch terms of service, which are governed by Dutch law.

That, Wildeboer argues, is maybe the only stroke of luck Nwosisi has gotten these last few years. “If you can get a claim looked at under Dutch law, you better be damn happy about that. Dutch law is very reasonable toward victims,” he said.

Uber’s best defense all around the world is that its drivers aren’t actually Uber employees, and the company has spent millions of dollars in the U.S. and elsewhere fighting to ensure they stay that way. But under the Dutch Civil Code, Wildeboer argues, parent companies can be liable for the errors not only of subordinates (i.e., employees) but also of non-subordinates and representatives, which covers a broad range of other affiliations. “The victim has to be protected” under Dutch law, Wildeboer said, “and it shouldn’t matter what kind of relationship the person who caused the accident has with the parent company.”

But Uber seemed inclined to settle, so Wildeboer shelved the legal argument and entered negotiations with the company. In early 2021, as a first step, they jointly hired a medical examiner to assess Nwosisi. The months-long process was exhaustive and, unfortunately for Nwosisi, inconclusive in its diagnosis. But while the examiner couldn’t find the exact source of Nwosisi’s pain, he found that the pain was “realistic, not exaggerated” and “can be explained by the accident itself,” according to a translation of the report reviewed by Protocol. The examiner also said Nwosisi would benefit from mental health care, given his “psychological complaints” and “indications of post-traumatic stress symptoms.”

In November 2021, a full two years after the accident, Wildeboer proposed a settlement of 250,000 euros to pay for years of lost income, medical costs, ongoing physical therapy, housekeeping and other damages Nwosisi suffered.

Two months later, a lawyer for Uber and its Dutch insurer, Chubb, rejected that number out of hand, responding with a five-page letter that called Nwosisi’s proposal unreasonable and denied all liability. “The cause of the accident and the facts and circumstances of the accident are unknown,” the letter read.

Uber argued that since no police report had been filed, there was no way to know that Nwosisi’s description of the accident — including the driver’s speed — was even accurate. “The causal relationship between the accident and the spinal cord complaints has only been established for the situation that the car was traveling at a speed of minimum 60 kilometers per hour [about 37mph] and such proof has not been provided by Nwosisi,” Uber’s lawyer wrote. She also noted the medical examiner’s hypothesis that Nwosisi’s “psychological complaints” might be making his “physical complaints” worse.

Uber offered Nwosisi 30,000 euros, take it or leave it. It was way more than Nwosisi would have gotten from the insurance settlement, but it didn’t come close to covering his losses.

The most frustrating part, to Wildeboer, was that Uber took the better part of a year to get to that point. “You can say, ‘Fuck off. Good luck with your case. We do not acknowledge liability. See you in court,’ but Uber had created the illusion that parties were in reasonable negotiations with each other,” Wildeboer said. “We wasted a lot of time before we could go to court.”

'A shadow of myself'

By all accounts, including his own, the years since the accident have wreaked havoc on Nwosisi’s mental state. Before the accident, he says, things were going well. He’d moved to the Netherlands for school more than a decade before, got his master’s at the University of Amsterdam and built a life there.

But as that life has unraveled around him, he’s lost sleep and suffered from flashbacks, not to mention persistent anger about what’s happened to him. He blames his injuries for his breakup with his girlfriend and, in a country of cyclists where Nwosisi doesn’t own a car, it’s now painful just to get around town, let alone shuffle his two kids around. “I was a shadow of myself. I lost weight. I started to lose my hair. It was painful, very painful,” Nwosisi said. “Still is.”

Another person in Nwosisi’s position might have jumped at Uber’s offer, if only to put an end to it. But Nwosisi says 30,000 euros wouldn’t be enough to get his life back on track, especially not with legal bills to consider.

There’s no guarantee going to court will work out for Nwosisi, either. In its settlement proposal, Uber professed utmost confidence that it has “strong legal defenses to any alleged liability with regard to the car accident.”

And Uber may be right. “With the jurisdictional and venue issues he’s facing, I can see why there are hurdles and difficulties in his case,” said Victoria Santoro Mair, a partner at Sweeney Merrigan Law, a personal injury firm based in Massachusetts.

Mair is currently representing another Uber passenger, William Good, in a case against the company. Good is suing Uber for $63 million after he was involved in an accident in Boston that left him quadriplegic. While his case differs dramatically both in terms of the scope of Good’s injuries and the location where the accident took place, Mair argues it raises similar questions about how Uber views its responsibilities in the world and what sort of protection it can actually offer passengers. In the U.S., Uber’s $1 million insurance policy for passengers is substantially higher than it is in Nigeria, but it still isn’t enough to cover even Good’s first year of medical expenses, Mair said.

“From our perspective, it’s all about Uber taking responsibility for the conditions they create on the roads,” she said. ”You entice the passenger into the car, you charge them on the way out and take no responsibility for what happens in between.”

Nwosisi knows taking Uber to court will be risky, and he may well walk away in worse financial straits than before. “The chance that I might not get anything worries me,” he said. “But the chance that this will not happen again, and a lot of people hear about it, is why I'm speaking publicly.”

Having grown up in Nigeria, he says he’s seen global companies, namely Shell, expand into a place and pollute it with little regard for the consequences for the people there. “That,” Nwosisi said, “is exactly what Uber is doing.”

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