New injury lawsuits allege scooter companies are negligent, trying to deter lawsuits

Austin (KXAN) — If you’re injured on a scooter in Austin and looking to sue for damages, you may be required to go to California to have the case heard. But an Austin attorney is looking to change that.

On Thursday, personal injury attorney Jim Freeman filed seven lawsuits for people who’ve been injured riding scooters in Austin.

Four of those lawsuits are against the company, Lime,  two of those lawsuits are against the company, Bird, and one is against Jump, which is the name for the branch of Uber that operates scooters. 

These cases all claim the companies were negligent. They also all claim that a scooter was defective in some way and caused an injury, whether that was a defective brake, defective headlamps or spontaneous scooter deactivations. 

“For a long time they wanted us to work through a negotiation process,” Freeman said. “Then it got more and more clear to us that they had no intentions of settling.”

The people he’s representing were injured in Austin, ranging from April 2018 when scooters were first introduced in the city to as recently as May 2019. He’s gotten a lot of calls from people who have been injured while riding scooters, but chose to focus on these seven because he was sure that user error was not a factor for them.

The cases include people with injuries ranging from broken arms, dislocated shoulders, facial disfigurement with dental damage, and torn ankles. Most have some level of permanent impairment, Freeman said. 

The main priority of these suits in making sure the clients are taken care of after their injuries, Freeman said. But when read together, these lawsuits point out a hurdle for those injured in Texas who claim damages against these California based companies: all three require things that will make it tough to have the case heard outside of California.

The rider agreements

Each of the companies has user agreements for riders that are long and full of complicated language (read the agreements for Lime, Bird, and Jump). The lawsuits say the agreements are “full of legalese that requires the user to have a law degree to fully comprehend.” 

“What they try to say is you assume all responsibility for no matter what happens, and it even says basically if our product completely fails and causes you injury, you’re still completely liable for it, not us, which is ridiculous,” Freeman said. “It’s obvious that if the product is dangerous and it causes an injury, of course, they should be held to task.”

All three companies make it clear that any disputes or lawsuits will be handled under the laws of California.

Lime’s agreement says that any dispute against them must happen in San Mateo County in Northern California.

Bird’s agreement says that any dispute against them must take place in Los Angeles, California.

Jump says that any dispute must be handled by a retired judge or attorney licensed to practice law in California.

Freeman’s plan is to ask the courts to keep the seven cases he’s filed in Travis County, he suspects that’s something the companies may push back against.

“One of the most recent conversations that kind of triggered me kind of going ahead and filing the suit was a California lawyer said, ‘We’re sticking by the user agreement, the most we’re going to help out with is maybe helping replace their clothing or their tennis shoes,'” Freeman said.

He explained it took him about thirty minutes to read through Lime’s entire rider agreement and he suspects most riders don’t read it at all.

“I can’t imagine someone in the hot sun, standing over a scooter, actually reading the user agreement,” he said.

KXAN has reached out to Bird, Lime and Jump about these suits, only Lime has responded saying that they do not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuits

“I’m not a crusader of trying to get them off the street,” Freeman said, acknowledging that consumers want these scooters. “I just really don’t like the way they run people around and then don’t want to be around when it’s time to pay the bill when someone gets hurt.”

Each of the seven lawsuits calls the respective company’s rider agreement “a calculated attempt to trick the injured user into thinking that they can either not sue at all or that it will simply be too  much trouble to sue.”

The suits also mention the recent Centers for Disease Control epidemiological study about scooters in Austin, which found that 192 people were injured in scooter-related accidents during a three month period in the fall of 2018 in Austin. The researchers found that almost half of the people identified had a severe injury and of those, 20% went to the hospital.

The injuries included in the seven new lawsuits include

  • A man who broke his right arm as well as several other injuries after he said the scooter he was riding deactivated spontaneously
  • A man riding on South Congress who was going downhill and realized his brakes were not working. He said that to avoid hitting a guardrail, he jumped from his scooter and shattered his heel bone.
  • A woman whose scooter slid out from underneath her when she rode over some gravel in a parking lot, she tried to avoid the gravel but the handlebars were loose and she couldn’t maneuver the scooter. She had to have multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
  • A man riding a scooter who hit a pothole because he said the headlamp on his scooter wasn’t working. He was thrown from his scooter and dislocated his shoulder as he tried to break his fall.
  • A man riding a scooter and didn’t realize his headlamp was not lighting up the rod correctly. As he was crossing the street he hit a pothole and was thrown over the handlebars and injured.
  • A woman who was a first-time rider who said the wheels on the scooter she was riding locked suddenly, causing the scooter to slam her against the pavement leaving her with significant injuries.
  • A man riding a scooter on the sidewalk down Pleasant Valley Road because there was no bike lane went down a slope and realized that the scooter brakes weren’t working. He said this made him unable to avoid a concrete joint in the sidewalk when his scooter struck the joint in the sidewalk, he was thrown twenty feet, injuring his ankle and shoulder.

Christopher Fife is the man in that incident that took place on Pleasant Valley Road.

“There was literally nothing I could do with the brakes not working, I tried to tumble whenever I hit the ground,” Fife recalled. ” I ended up taking 20 stitches from the top of my foot to my ankle, my foot bore the brunt of the entire incident.”

He explained that crash put a large gash in his foot and left him in the hospital for three days. Fife is moving forward with this lawsuit to help recoup the costs from those medical expenses.

“I probably am going to be one of those statistics of where I am an insured person, but I am going to have to file for bankruptcy just from the medical bills from this instance,” he said.

Austinite Christopher Fife was injured in October 2018 when he said the brakes on his scooter stopped working. His foot was torn open and he had to be hospitalized for three days. (Photo Courtesy Christopher Fife).

“If somebody would have told me a year ago that one couple of minutes riding on a scooter — the scooters are fun to ride, don’t get me wrong, but they’re extremely dangerous, and I think that’s something a lot of people don’t take into consideration whenever they hop on a scooter,” he said.

Fife was an avid cyclist and marathoner, since the injury he has to stop physical activity after going for about a mile.

Scooter Injuries

We reached out to several local hospitals to see what scooter-related injuries they’re seeing in emergency rooms.

Dell Seton Medical Center explained that since scooters first entered the Austin market in 2018, their hospital has seen 115 significant traumas related to scooters. Of those, 36 were major head injuries, 66 were orthopedic injuries, and 27 were facial fractures.

Dr. Christopher Ziebell, Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Dell Seton noted that those numbers only reflect the major injuries, there are others who are treated and discharged for more minor injuries.

“We’ll see several every day of people who fall over and they sprain themselves or they scrape themselves or they maybe break a wrist and we can put a splint on it,” Ziebell said. “That’s been a pretty common occurrence, it’s one of the more common things we’re seeing these days.”

Ziebell said that when the scooters entered the Austin market they “hit [Seton] like a ton of bricks” because there were o many. He thinks the Emergency Department has seen a plateau since the community has taken more actions to make scooter use safer. But he noted, as the volume of scooters in Austin keeps growing, even if the number of injuries per-use goes down, the number of uses is going up.

St David’s HealthCare said their hospitals do not track the way that people are injured, but Dr. Neel Ware, a trauma surgeon at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center explained that the hospitals are certainly seeing scooter-related injuries.

“A lot of what we see are a lot of head injuries, brain injuries, orthopedic injuries, lower extremities, shoulders,” Ware said. “Because when you look at a scooter, there is virtually no protection for the rider whatsoever.”

Ware explained that because scooters are so new in cities, there’s still a lot for doctors to learn about scooter-related injuries and trends.