DoorDash should stop texting its drivers while they’re moving, wrongful death lawsuit says

“If they don’t revise their practice of texting drivers while driving with unmounted cellphones,” said Mark Webb, “there will be more accidents.”

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

A San Francisco attorney says DoorDash should stop texting its drivers while they’re moving and do more to limit distracted driving overall, according to new paperwork filed in Alameda County Superior Court last week.

Attorney Mark Webb has filed a wrongful death lawsuit asking for injunctive relief, where the court would instruct DoorDash — a multibillion-dollar company that calls itself the nation’s leading delivery app — to modify its practices following a fatal collision in Berkeley where a DoorDash driver killed a pedestrian in July.

Webb said he believes his case to be the first lawsuit against DoorDash seeking injunctive relief.

“DOORDASH has thus far failed to implement technology that would prevent Dashers from illegally texting while driving,” Webb’s lawsuit says. “It turns a blind eye to the corners its drivers are statistically likely to cut in the name of profit.”

Sharif Ahmad and Delvonnia Cooper with their aunt (center). Courtesy: Ahmad family

On July 26, a DoorDash driver on her way to pick up a delivery struck 54-year-old Latitia Austin Ahmad on Ashby Avenue, fatally injuring her. The driver, Helen Dale, also struck Ahmad’s daughter, 25-year-old Delvonnia Cooper, who survived but sustained serious injuries.

In August, on behalf of Cooper and her brother Sharif Ahmad, Webb filed his wrongful death case against Dale and DoorDash, citing DoorDash’s business model, which is “predicated on speed,” as a major part of the problem.

On Thursday, Webb updated that paperwork to take aim squarely at DoorDash. (He dropped Dale from the lawsuit due to a separate insurance settlement.) In addition to injunctive relief, he has asked the court for punitive damages, which go beyond simple compensation and seek to penalize a defendant for outrageous conduct.

When DoorDash approved Dale as a driver, it overlooked her history of moving violations and her out-of-state Oregon driver’s license, which she had failed to update despite having moved to California months earlier, according to court papers.

DoorDash did not inspect Dale’s vehicle, interview her in person or advise her to install a hands-free cellphone mount, Webb wrote.

Dale said, during a deposition, that she had placed her phone, which she was using to navigate, next to the gearshift beside the driver seat, and that she did not see Ahmad until she struck her. Video of the collision shows Dale striking Ahmad at full speed.

“Dale’s failure to stop or even slow down suggests that she had taken her eyes completely off the road,” according to the lawsuit.

DoorDash, Webb wrote, has a “duty of care” to properly train its drivers about traffic safety, whether they are considered employees or contractors.

“Nobody from DOORDASH told her that it was illegal to use an unmounted cell phone while driving or advised her that she should not drive while using an unmounted cell phone,” according to the lawsuit. “To the extent that DOORDASH purports to be the ‘last-mile infrastructure for local commerce,’ it owes a duty to make sure that its ‘infrastructure’ … has reasonable safeguards that will discourage or prevent illegal cellphone use while driving.”

In the lawsuit, Webb says the DoorDash business model “will result in increased rates of motor vehicle accidents, including automobile-versus-pedestrian accidents,” due to incentives for drivers to “complete trips as quickly as possible.”

During their deliveries, DoorDash texts its drivers and sends cellphone notifications through its app. Webb says the app makes it clear when drivers are moving, and that DoorDash should stop sending notifications at that time.

“It’s our position DoorDash is legally responsible for this accident,” said Webb, in response to a Berkeleyside inquiry. “If they don’t revise their practice of texting drivers while driving with unmounted cellphones, there will be more accidents and tragedies.”

Webb has asked the court for a jury trial. The case is scheduled for a hearing before a judge in February.

“They have an opportunity to lead the industry in change,” Webb said. “And I hope they do.”

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

DoorDash told Berkeleyside the company does believe driver safety is important.

“We take Dasher safety extremely seriously,” said Briana Megid, a company spokesperson, “which is why we invest in products, policies, and partnerships that enable us to lead the industry while better serving all members of our community.”

Most of its safety tips, however, appear aimed at keeping drivers safe from crime. Berkeleyside could find no mention of driver requirements or guidance related to hands-free cellphone mounts in DoorDash materials online.

Berkeleyside has asked DoorDash for that information and will update this story if it is provided.

As a result of Proposition 22, approved in November 2020, DoorDash does require all California Dashers to undergo safety screening, which covers “safe driving and food handling.” More detailed information about that screening was unavailable as of publication time.

Alameda County Superior Court records previously reviewed by Berkeleyside showed that DoorDash had been named as a defendant twice in the past year in 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. In August, 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. The company went public last year, making its founders “overnight billionaires.”

Featured photo: Emilie Raguso

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