Many commuters consider 2018 as “the year of the scooter” with Bird and Lime having started an electric battery-operated scooter service in California late in 2017. With a maximum speed of 15 mph, these short-range electric vehicles consist of a narrow platform on which the rider stands with 1 foot in front of the other and a waist-high rod with handlebars for steering. After kicking off initially with 1 foot, riders accelerate and brake the scooter using triggers activated with their thumbs. The e-scooters are located and unlocked using a downloaded smartphone application, rides are paid for by the minute, and the ride can be ended anywhere the rider decides.
Surpassing 10 million rides in their first year of operation, Bird has seen tremendous growth since its founding in September 2017. Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at Lyft and at Uber, grew this e-scooter startup to a valuation of $2.8 billion as of October 2019.You can ride a Bird scooter in over 100 cities around the world. The cost of renting a Bird scooter is $0.15 per minute in most places. Users can also rent a Bird scooter in select cities for $25 per month. Lime, the other leader in the dockless electric scooter sharing industry, began operations in January 2017 in San Francisco. Lime scooter rentals are available in 32 countries around the world. Within the US, you can rent a Lime scooter in 28 states. In addition, Lime has partnered with 21 U.S. university campuses.
The big boys got into the fray when Ford Motor Company bought Spin for $100 million in late 2018. Spin had employed just 24 people. Now, the company has several hundred employees across 70 markets. Spin crafted the first stationless micro-mobility permit in the US, and recently announced its international expansion plans. Uber also joined the scooter market with its Jump line of scooters (However in May of 2020 Uber handed over Jump to Lime). Lime plans to integrate Jump in its own app, though it’s not clear if it will be a full-on replacement. In addition Lyft is operating a limited e-scooter business in Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Monica and Washington, D.C.
The first signs of trouble came from pedestrians and business owners complaining about scooters dumped on sidewalks and every other conceivable place. Common was the complaint of male, helmetless riders violating sidewalk restrictions and traffic laws. Local laws regarding electric scooters are variable, with most locales prohibiting riding on the sidewalk and requiring the use of helmets, but no uniform set of policies exists, and differences in enforcement further amplify this variation. Many cities started trial pilot programs to see if e-scooters could be controlled in limited use. Here in Chicago, the City granted permission to three e-scooter companies to operate in the 2020 e-scooter pilot: Bird, Lime and Spin. The 2020 pilot runs four months from mid-August to mid-December. Each company has deployed up to 3,333 scooters throughout the City of Chicago for a total of 10,000 scooters citywide. Two months into the pilot, city officials have been “encouraged” by both the data and anecdotal reports from residents, advocates and City staff that indicate the lock-to cable requirement has significantly reduced the number of instances of devices blocking sidewalks. However, the city is still getting many reports of people improperly and unsafely riding scooters on sidewalks. Chicago is currently working with the three scooter companies to provide additional education to riders about the importance of safe riding practices.
Several studies have already been conducted regarding injuries associated with e-scooter use. One such study published in April of 2019 was conducted by the Public Health and Transportation departments in Austin, Texas, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study identified a total of 271 people with potential scooter-related injuries from September 5th through November 30th, 2018. The research team calculated that there were 20 individuals injured per 100,000 e-scooter trips taken during the three-month period.
Of those injured riders, almost half sustained head injuries. Fifteen percent experienced traumatic brain injuries. Many of these injuries could have been prevented by wearing a helmet, but only one of 190 injured scooter riders was wearing one. Over half (55 percent) were injured in the street, while a third (33 percent) were hurt on the sidewalk. Cars or other motorized vehicles factored into 16 percent of injuries, but only 10 percent of riders actually collided with a car. Ten percent of injured riders hit a curb, and 7 percent struck an inanimate object, such as a light pole or manhole cover.
Another study published in JAMA (JAMA NetwOpen.2019;2 (1):e187381.doi:10.1001/ jamanetworkopen.2018.7381) in 2019 looked at medical records of all patients presenting with injuries associated with standing electric scooter use between September 1, 2017, and August 31, 2018, at the urban emergency departments associated with two academic medical centers in Southern California. The most common injuries were fracture (79 patients [31.7%]), head injury (100 [40.2%]), and contusions, sprains, and lacerations without fracture or head injury (69 [27.7%]). Common fracture locations included the distal upper extremity (31 [12.5%]), proximal upper extremity (17 [6.8%]), distal lower extremity (11 [4.4%]), and face (14 [5.6%]). In addition, a total of 193 scooter riders were observed during 3 public observation sessions, and the following unsafe riding practices were observed: no helmet use (182 riders [94.3%]), tandem riding (15 riders [7.8%]), and failure to comply with traffic laws (18 riders [9.3%]). Additionally, many riders were observed to be riding on the sidewalk (51 riders [26.4%]), where scooter use is prohibited.
So has this novel use of e-scooters changed the litigation landscape? You bet. Any casual search for “scooter lawyer” now brings up a plethora of “Scooter Accident Lawyer” hits. This is certainly an emerging and growing area of practice. The first large scale litigation started in California alleging that Lime and Bird failed to properly maintain their scooters resulting in injuries to almost 90 plaintiffs. In May of 2020 a suit against Bird was filed on behalf of 42 plaintiffs in Los Angeles Superior Court. Then in August of 2020, Lime was named in a similar suit on behalf of 46 injured parties from across the country.
Here in Chicago, the first e-scooter lawsuits are just starting to evolve. Of note is the case of a local cyclist who was seriously injured in a hit-and-run collision with an electric scooter rider. The cyclist filed a suit to determine who hit him. The lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court is seeking cooperation from Bird, Lyft, Uber, Lime and six other e-scooter providers. The cyclist is hoping to obtain rider location data from the companies about people who were riding scooters at the time and site of the accident. He plans to use the information to identify the negligent rider and hold the person accountable for his medical expenses, lost earnings and pain.
In personal injury cases involving e-scooters, the question may become who pays. Bird and Lime generally place the responsibility for accidents on riders by listing in their rental agreements that riders relieve the companies of liability. Customers must agree to those terms to ride. Bird says riders are fully insured for anything that might happen as a result of a faulty Bird scooter. Lime says its insurance policy offers at least $1 million in liability coverage for each covered claim, but there’s no way to know whether a claim is covered until an investigation is done, and each claim is unique. Despite the scooter companies’ claim of liability insurance, responsibility for damages is likely to fall on the riders’ shoulders, because of the terms and conditions users agree to when they download the smart phone application. Riders might think their auto insurance would cover an electric scooter accident, but automobile insurance generally doesn’t cover scooters. And homeowner’s or renter’s insurance may cover an accident that occurs on a traditional bicycle, but it’s unlikely to cover e-scooters. Future litigation is bound to shed light on these questions.