Miami-Dade County

Uber suit in Miami-Dade comes as debate looms on driver screenings

20-year old Pablo Sanchez Jr. died in a car accident in December.
20-year old Pablo Sanchez Jr. died in a car accident in December.

When Pablo Sanchez Jr. wanted a lift home in the wee hours of a recent Sunday, the 20-year-old used his cellphone to hail an Uber vehicle to take him and friends the 30 miles or so between downtown Miami and his parents’ house in Country Walk.

He was almost home in the early morning hours of Dec. 27 when the Uber driver’s GMC Yukon, according to a lawsuit, turned into oncoming traffic, flipped over and burst into flames. Sanchez was trapped inside and died.

Now his mother is suing Uber, and her lawyer is taking aim at the popular ride-hailing company’s reliance on a fleet of freelance and often moonlighting drivers that now number in the thousands throughout Miami-Dade .

“Many of these drivers are using Uber to supplement their lifestyle,” said Coral Gables lawyer Andrew Yaffa, who represents Sanchez’s mother and father. “You may have folks that have two and three other jobs and are coming on duty late in the day. Somehow, someway there needs to be safeguards that Uber is not putting people that are on the verge of falling asleep behind the wheel and responsible for our children.”

The litigation comes as Miami-Dade leaders wrestle with how much scrutiny to give the company’s drivers in a push to legalize the popular service. Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed letting Uber itself handle background checks, but a proposal drafted by County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime would require drivers to submit to county screening. Commissioners are expected to take up the issue for an initial vote at their Jan. 20 meeting, with both Monestime’s proposal and a Gimenez-backed ordinance proposed by Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo working their way through the legislative pipeline.

Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons declined to comment beyond a statement that read: “We are deeply saddened by this tragic accident, and our thoughts are with all those involved and their families during this very difficult time.”

Though illegal in Miami-Dade for not following the county’s car-for-hire rules, Uber still provides commercial insurance throughout the county. The insurance kicks in for drivers once they’re logged into the company’s ride-hailing software. For accidents that occur after a ride is hailed, the policies offer $1 million in coverage, according to the company’s website.

Sanchez’s mother, Shafena Mohamed, is listed as the plaintiff in the suit filed Jan. 8 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and discussed the case Tuesday at a press conference at the Grossman Roth law firm in Coral Gables, where Yaffa is a partner. The suit is against Uber, as well as the two drivers involved in the collision. Uber driver Jean Ralph Adam could not be located Tuesday, and Uber did not respond to an interview request for Adam. Shamma Chery, listed as the Yukon’s owner, is also named as a defendant.

Yaffa said the police report has not yet been completed and that he could provide no specifics as to what caused the crash. He said Sanchez’s friends and fellow passengers, who survived the crash, described the driver as looking down before the collision.

Yaffa also offered no details on what — if anything — Uber may have failed to catch in its screening process or how long Adam had been driving that day. With the suit filed, Yaffa said he can secure the evidence needed to determine what happened and make his case.

Sanchez’s father, Pablo Sanchez Sr., attended the press conference and addressed about a dozen reporters in both English and Spanish. He cried when discussing his son, who was studying at Miami-Dade College to be a pharmacist.

“You don’t know who’s going to drive your son,” he said. “These people, you can call them at any time of the night. They’re there.”