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In dozens of U.S. cities, there is a new entrant in the battle for our streets and sidewalks. In the past two years or so, electric scooters have burst onto the scene, offering a new pace of urban travel that forces pedestrians, cyclists and cars to share the sidewalk and road with a vehicle that does not fit naturally on either.
For some people, e-scooters are a lifesaver. For others, they are a nuisance. But a recent Consumer Reports investigation suggests that the scooters are something else entirely—a public safety hazard. According to the organization, 1,500 e-scooter riders nationwide have been injured over the span of about 18 months, with an additional eight riders having died as a result of such injuries.
With e-scooters becoming available in more locations nationwide, and the number of e-scooter-related injuries growing rapidly, personal injury attorneys and local governments are beginning to take action in the hopes of holding e-scooter companies liable for the injuries their scooters cause—and limiting the potential for additional injuries.
E-scooter companies like Lime™, Bird®, and Spin are now operating in more than 90 cities in the United States. Some cities have hundreds of scooters available for use. If a rider is interested in using one of those companies’ (or a competitor’s) two-wheeled, electric-powered scooters, all they must do is download the company’s app and use it to unlock the scooter they are standing in front of. Users are charged for unlocking the e-scooter (typically $1) and for the amount of time they use it (typically $0.15 per minute).
E-scooters typically reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour, and have a range of between about 15 and 40 miles. Once users have arrived at their destination, they can leave their e-scooters wherever they want. That’s because, unlike most bike share programs, by design there is nowhere for users to dock their e-scooters. This flexibility for users has become a major source of frustration for non-users and city governments. Across the internet and social media, pictures abound of e-scooters being left haphazardly around cities.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of e-scooters is how they are charged. E-scooter companies rely on members of the public who have registered with the companies to charge the scooters. Once approved by a company, an individual can use the company’s app to locate nearby scooters that are in need of charging. Most chargers will bring the scooters home to charge and then collect their fee from the scooter’s company—typically between $5 and $20 per scooter. While some teenagers and young professionals charge scooters to make a little bit of money on the side, other people view charging as a full-time business.
As the number of e-scooters available across the United States has increased, so too have the number of scooter-related injuries.
In addition to the Consumer Reports investigation we mentioned above, researchers from UCLA found that from September 2017 through August 2018, roughly 250 people visited two particular Los Angeles hospital emergency rooms with scooter-related injuries. Over 90% of those injured were riders. After the study was over, two additional Los Angeles-area riders were killed in traffic collisions.
The volatile mix of pedestrians, cars, and e-scooters has not gone unnoticed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In Texas, at the request of Austin Public Health and the Austin Transportation Department, the CDC launched its first study into e-scooter accidents in early 2019. The study found that in the span of about two months in late 2018, about 192 people suffered e-scooter-related injuries in Austin, Texas. Of those people, 48 percent suffered injuries to the head, while 70 percent suffered injuries to their upper limbs.
E-scooter riders and non-riders are slowly turning to the courts to hold e-scooter companies liable for the injuries their products have caused.
In October 2018, nine plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles County court, alleging that they or their properties were injured by the gross negligence of a number of e-scooter companies and manufacturers. And earlier this summer, an attorney filed seven lawsuits alleging that Lime, Bird, and Jump were negligent in the operation of their e-scooters, and that the companies’ negligence caused various injuries to the plaintiffs in those cases.
But one of the attorneys who filed these lawsuits is concerned that injured riders may have difficulty prevailing in such cases. The concern stems from the language of these companies’ user agreements that make clear that the riders are assuming the risk of any injuries.
Not to be outdone, some cities have banned e-scooters or limited the times they can be lawfully operated. Malibu recently banned e-scooters within its city limits. Virginia Beach just banned e-scooters from most of its Oceanfront resort area. Denver recently banned e-scooters from riding on city sidewalks. And Atlanta banned e-scooters from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. due to safety concerns.
While e-scooters are relatively new to society, they are already having an impact. For some riders, they provide a way to commute to work or otherwise get around town without a car. But for other riders and pedestrians, e-scooters are accidents waiting to happen. As their availability and usage continue to increase, there is little doubt that e-scooter-related injuries will follow a similar trend.
Personal injury attorneys who practice in cities and towns served by e-scooters should keep an eye on the e-scooter industry. Representing people injured by e-scooters could very well become a growing practice for their firms. However, as we mentioned above, there are some hurdles that attorneys and their clients will likely have to overcome in order to recover damages from e-scooter companies.