Motorist who killed pedestrian was driving for DoorDash, lawsuit says

The family’s attorney has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against DoorDash and the driver. The attorney also plans to sue the city, alleging inadequate lighting and signage.

Loved ones hold a vigil for Latitia Austin Ahmad at Ashby Avenue and Newbury Street in South Berkeley on Aug. 5, 2021. Credit: Emilie Raguso

The driver who killed a pedestrian crossing Ashby Avenue in South Berkeley in late July was delivering food for DoorDash when the collision took place, according to a lawsuit filed this month in Alameda County Superior Court.

The driver, identified in court papers as Helen Dale, was eastbound on Ashby when she struck 54-year-old Latitia Austin Ahmad near Newbury Street on July 26 shortly before 10 p.m. Ahmad’s two adult children, 25-year-old Delvonnia Cooper and 21-year-old Sharif Ahmad, were also at the scene. That night, they had planned to visit Latitia’s brother, who has a shop on the south side of Ashby not far from Newbury.

The family has said Cooper rushed to her mother’s side while Sharif Ahmad tried to keep the driver at the scene. But she drove away, witnesses said, hitting Latitia a second time and also striking Cooper. Police said the driver left the area because a crowd was forming then called from a safe location nearby to report her part in the crash. As of this week, police have not yet made a ruling as to the cause of the collision, citing the ongoing investigation.

Mark Webb, the family’s attorney, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Cooper and her brother naming DoorDash as well as Dale, a 24-year-old Oakland woman, responsible for Ahmad’s death. Cooper suffered serious injuries and “may not be able to walk again,” the attorney said. Webb said Dale told her insurance company she was picking up a DoorDash delivery at the time of the crash.

Webb, a San Francisco-based personal injury lawyer and former federal prosecutor of organized crime, has also filed a claim against the city of Berkeley alleging improper lighting and inadequate signage in the area where the crash took place.

Police are awaiting the results of a pending mechanical assessment of the vehicle and an analysis of the driver’s cellphone before making a determination as to the collision’s cause. No one has been arrested and no charges have been filed.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed in mid-August and amended last week, Webb takes aim at the DoorDash business model, noting that its drivers are called “dashers” and that its name “emphasizes speed.”

“It is foreseeable that DOORDASH’s business model of flooding certain areas with cars and encouraging its ‘Dashers’ to make speedy deliveries, will result in increased rates of motor vehicle accidents, including automobile versus pedestrian accidents like the one in this case,” he writes.

Webb said DoorDash calls its drivers independent contractors to distance itself from liability: “This system puts huge pressure on the drivers, many of whom are from out of state and unfamiliar with the area. They have to hustle to make a living while the owners of the company sit by their computers and get rich.”

In his lawsuit, Webb argues that DoorDash is liable for injuries and damages caused by people making deliveries through the app.

“Corporations have a responsibility to the people who make them rich to, at a minimum, create a safe working environment,” Webb told Berkeleyside on Monday. “Only sometimes they have to be reminded.”

Campbell Millum, a spokesperson for DoorDash, offered a brief statement in response to an inquiry from Berkeleyside about the collision.

“DoorDash takes safety extremely seriously and we are deeply saddened by this tragic loss. Our thoughts are with Ms. Ahmad’s family and friends during this unimaginably difficult time, and we stand ready to assist law enforcement in any way we can.”

According to court records, the next hearing in the case is not currently slated to take place until March 2022. Webb said he plans to depose Dale in the coming weeks to get her statement about what took place.

Alameda County Superior Court records reviewed by Berkeleyside show that DoorDash had otherwise been named as a defendant just twice in the past year in local lawsuits alleging injury: once in connection with a crash between a driver and cyclist in Oakland and once in connection with a crash involving a driver and a man on a motorcycle in an unincorporated area of the county. Those cases are ongoing, but DoorDash has denied liability, citing a raft of statutes.

Wrongful death lawsuits against the company appear to be even less common. Just last week, however, the children of a Louisiana woman who was reportedly killed when a DoorDash driver struck her in her front yard filed a wrongful death lawsuit naming DoorDash as a party in the case.

The food delivery company, which was founded by several Stanford students in 2013, has also faced allegations of overcharging customers, deceptive business practices and taking tips from drivers. The company has denied many of the claims. Last year, however, DoorDash agreed to a $2.5 million settlement in connection with the tip theft allegations.

But the company, now valued at more than $30 billion dollars, has seen enormous success as well. It has been hailed as the largest food delivery company in the nation. The company went public last year, making its founders “overnight billionaires.”

In his claim against DoorDash and Dale on behalf of Ahmad’s adult children — both of whom graduated from Berkeley High School — Webb is seeking unlimited damages, meaning an amount above $25,000.

As far as his case against the city, Webb told Berkeleyside he had called in a lighting expert to review the area where the crash took place and also assessed the area himself. He said the review found obscured speed limit signage as well as lighting that was “far below” the statutory minimum of 1 foot candle, or one lumen per square foot. The lighting expert found zero foot candles of light in the area, Webb said.

Webb said his ultimate hope is to get justice for his clients and that he would also like to push for systemic changes that could make the streets safer.

“We cannot allow responsible parties to go back to business as usual,” he said.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.