Lyft driver Drew Wajnert is unable to walk after being hit by a suspected drunk driver while on the job.
But Lyft dropped an insurance policy during the pandemic that may have covered his medical bills.
One expert told Insider Lyft's insurance, even with that policy when it was in effect, falls far short of what traditional employers must provide.
Shortly before 9 p.m. on March 2, in Lakewood, Colorado, Drew Wajnert was rear-ended by a suspected drunk driver who was allegedly going 85 mph, sending his car slamming into the median and fracturing his spine.
"When he came up to me and asked me how I was," Wajnert told Insider, "What he may have not seen was, not only did he rear-end me at 85 miles an hour, but I spun into the concrete divider at 50 miles an hour, and then spun to the shoulder to a dead stop."
Emergency services arrived on the scene within minutes, taking Wajnert to nearby St. Anthony's Hospital, where doctors performed surgery to install a titanium plate and four screws in his neck. Months after the accident, Wajnert - now in a special spinal-cord injury rehab center at Craig Hospital - still has braces on his neck as well as both hands and knees, and while he has regained some feeling, there is no guarantee he'll ever walk again.
As a full-time Lyft driver, Wajnert spent much of his time helping keep drunk drivers off the road. Now he's trying to prepare for the many physical and financial challenges ahead.
"I'm fighting as best as I can, but I am hospitalized and Lyft really isn't doing anything for me," he said.
"We are deeply saddened by this accident and our thoughts are with Drew and his loved ones during this difficult time. We've reached out to Drew and a member of his family to offer our support and stand ready to assist law enforcement in any way we can," a Lyft spokesperson told Insider. (Wajnert's attorney, Kurt Zaner, said Lyft reached out after Wajnert began contacting media outlets to share his story).
Zaner said Lyft dropped a driver insurance policy when the pandemic hit that he believes may have covered Wajnert's medical bills. Those bills could amount to up to $1 million in the short-term, and millions more over the course of his life.
Wajnert is planning to sue the driver, Alexander Marakas, who has been charged with vehicular assault, and possibly any bars that served Marakas, which could also be found liable for damages under Colorado's "dram shop" laws. Marakas, through his attorney, declined to comment.
Lyft told Insider that, in Colorado last year, it didn't make any changes to the insurance policies that cover drivers when they're waiting for Lyft's algorithm to find them a passenger (the phase Wajnert said he was in at the time of the accident).
But regardless of whether that specific pre-pandemic policy would have covered Wajnert's accident, his situation reveals the glaring gaps in driver protections that are a direct result of Lyft classifying drivers as independent contractors. That strategy allows companies like Lyft and Uber to provide minimal worker protections, and helps them avoid legal and financial liability when drivers like Wajnert get hurt on the job.
A patchwork of policies
For Wajnert, who drove taxi cabs for 10 years in New Jersey, Lyft wasn't a casual, part-time side hustle. Lyft has been his only source of income since signing up in January 2020, and he typically drove between 40 and 70 hours per week throughout the entire pandemic, completing 4,135 rides last year.
Wajnert leased his car, a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe, through Lyft's Express Drive program, costing him roughly $240 per week. Lyft charged Wajnert $500 after his accident, the deductible for the insurance policy on the vehicle. (The company told Insider it has since refunded that charge as well as the deposit Wajnert initially paid to rent the vehicle).
When it comes to drivers, transportation companies carry a variety of insurance policies, and Wajnert said he was under the impression Lyft's insurance policy would be sufficient in the event of an accident, so he didn't take out his own policy on top of that. In reality, Lyft has a complicated three-tiered policy that only kicks in when drivers turn on their app, and only provides limited coverage if its algorithm hasn't yet found them a passenger.
Many companies also carry what are called uninsured/underinsured motorist bodily injury policies (UM/UIM). These policies help pay for an injured driver's medical bills and other expenses in the event that the driver who hit them doesn't have enough insurance to cover those costs.
Before the pandemic, Lyft had UM/UIM policies that covered drivers. But on March 31, 2020, Lyft dropped those policies in Colorado and nearly every state where they weren't required by law, according to documents seen by Insider, leaving drivers in a majority of states with no such coverage.
Wajnert said Lyft never told him about that change, however, or at least not in a clear way, and that he "absolutely" would have bought additional coverage on his own if he had known.
"There was no grand email or reachout, no phone call from the [Lyft] Hub or anything like that," he said. "I can't understand why Lyft would carry insurance for people that we injure, but not insurance for its drivers when a reckless drunk driver hurts us."
Lyft's website still advertises that it provides UM/UIM coverage for drivers, in certain cases, with a small footnote indicating "coverage, where provided, may be modified to the extent allowed by law."
Wajnert said he only found out about Lyft's lack of coverage through his attorney, Zaner, after the accident.
"If this happened a year and a half ago, Drew would be able to make a claim with Lyft's underinsured policy, most likely," Zaner said. "Lyft carried $500,000 to $1,000,000 of underinsured coverage. It was a nice benefit that was pretty much expected in that industry; taxi cabs have the same kind of coverage, and they still do."
Lyft said it carries third-party liability insurance in Colorado, a requirement of laws governing rideshare companies, as well as Medical Payments insurance, which it says results in faster payouts.
But the fact that Wajnert may still be left to foot the bill despite working for Lyft when he was hurt is ultimately a consequence of the company's core business model.
The precarity of independence
As Uber and Lyft face growing calls from regulators and driver advocacy groups to pass laws reclassifying drivers as employees, the companies frequently defend their current business model by pointing to surveys saying the majority of drivers want to keep the flexibility they enjoy as independent contractors.
Setting aside repeated court rulings questioning just how independent drivers are, Wajnert's case illustrates how that independence can also leave drivers on their own in a way that could be devastating.
When employees are hurt on the job, they're entitled to workers' compensation, funded partly by their employer, which pays them for wages they missed out on because of their injury, and covers all of their medical bills. They can also qualify for occupational therapy to help them get back to work or, in cases like Wajnert's, permanent disability if their injury prevents them from working.
"Workers' compensation laws were written with automobile workers in mind," Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, San Francisco Hastings School of Law, who focuses on the intersection of technology and dangerous jobs, told Insider.
These laws emerged in the 1930s directly as a result of "widespread industrial injury and fatality, but particularly on railroads and as a result of automobiles," she said, adding that they were written "precisely" to protect people like Wajnert who work in especially dangerous industries.
"It's so incredibly tragic that he, and many, many, many hundreds of workers in this country ... are in this situation where they essentially will no longer be able to work or support themselves as a result of how the companies choose to classify them," Dubal said.
Companies face substantially more legal and financial liability for work-related accidents involving their employees than they do for contractors. For example, Amazon has relied on this model to minimize liability when its delivery drivers are injured (or injure others).
As a result, companies like Lyft and Uber have the legal flexibility and financial incentive to carry less extensive insurance.
If Lyft drivers were employees, according to Dubal, the company would likely have commercial insurance covering "all the time" drivers spend working, not just when they have riders in the car, which she said may be only 40-60% of the time drivers are on the road. Instead, Dubal said, what Lyft offers currently is "minuscule" compared what's required of companies subject to commercial insurance laws.
And for drivers like Wajnert who come from jobs where their employers have more robust policies, the gaps in Lyft's coverage can come as a surprise - and something they don't realize until its too late.
"It's horrible. I want to get the word out to Lyft drivers who are currently driving to be aware that they're not covered [by UM/UIM policies]," Wajnert said, adding: "I basically was a full-time employee for them."
Lyft does not classify its drivers as employees.
Wajnert is hospital-bound for at least another month, joined by his sister, Melissa, who had to move from North Carolina to stay with him due to Craig Hospital's requirement that rehab patients have a caregiver with them.
While he's trying to stay positive and his friends have started a GoFundMe campaign to help him make ends meet, Wajnert said it's going to be a long road to recovery.
Correction: Marakas's blood alcohol content and speed at the time of the collision have not yet been confirmed, and Wajnert's medical expenses will likely cost millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands of dollars as previously reported.
Read the original article on Business Insider