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Amazon demands delivery speed but attempts to shield itself from liability

When an employee of a company causes a traffic crash, it's not just the driver who could be held accountable. It's possible to sue the company and hold it accountable as well -- especially when the company exerted substantial control over the driver's actions.

When an Amazon.com driver causes a wreck, however, Amazon denies legal responsibility. This is because, it claims, their drivers are generally contractors, not employees. And, it requires contracting companies and drivers to "defend, indemnify and hold harmless Amazon," meaning they will assume all liability and pay any legal fees if they're ever in a traffic crash or cause any loss to others while on Amazon's business.

Yet, according to a recent exposé by the New York Times and the nonprofit ProPublica, Amazon exerts significant control over how, where and when those drivers drive.

For example, according to work orders the reporters obtained from contract drivers in eight states, Amazon controls the order of the deliveries and the route to each destination. If a driver runs behind, an Amazon dispatcher can call for an explanation. And, Amazon insists that all its drivers deliver 999 out of 1,000 packages on time. That pressures drivers to get to their destinations quickly, even if that requires cutting corners on safety.

Amazon told the reporters it requires all its drivers to maintain comprehensive insurance, including liability insurance.

How common are Amazon delivery crashes?

According to the exposé, Amazon won't disclose how many people had been injured or killed by its drivers. And, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration doesn't track the safety of Amazon's delivery drivers unless their vehicles are above a certain threshold size. That means it's virtually impossible to know how many injuries and deaths are attributable to Amazon deliveries.

Increasing pressure for speed

As the reporters noted, Amazon is already providing free overnight delivery to Prime members. Immediately after it announced this would become the default option for Prime members, Walmart announced free overnight delivery in some areas without having to join any club. In June, Amazon announced that Prime members are now eligible for free one-day shipping when buying any of 10 million products.

Can Amazon get away with this?

Can Amazon really shield itself entirely from liability even while pressuring drivers for speed? That is unclear. Often, a contracting company can be held liable for a contractor's negligence if they exert sufficient control. There are good arguments that Amazon should not be able to deny all liability, but few court cases specifically define how much control would be sufficient. It will take time and case law to know for sure.

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