Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Are Uber "Driver-Partners" a Liability Time Bomb?
I am probably late to the game on this, but I just realized that Uber promotes their drivers as "driver-partners." It's even in their ads. This seems unwise.
Uber has a history linked to the question about whether their drivers are employees or independent contractors. But what about the question of whether Uber drivers are partners or independent contractors? That is big, potential liability conundrum.
Now, just because one says they are partners, that does not make it so, at least as to each other. The converse is also true -- saying expressly "this agreement does not form a partnership" does not necessarily mean a court won't find one. See, e.g., Martin v. Peyton, 158 N.E. 77 (NY 1927) ("Statements that no partnership is intended are not conclusive."). But, as to third parties, at a minimum, affirmative statements that one is a partner, can create liability for those involved. The Uniform Partnership Act (1914) § 16. Partner by Estoppel, provides:
(1) When a person, by words spoken or written or by conduct, represents himself, or consents to another representing him to any one, as a partner in an existing partnership or with one or more persons not actual partners, he is liable to any such person to whom such representation has been made, who has, on the faith of such representation, given credit to the actual or apparent partnership, and if he has made such representation or consented to its being made in a public manner he is liable to such person, whether the representation has or has not been made or communicated to such person so giving credit by or with the knowledge of the apparent partner making the representation or consenting to its being made.
(a) When a partnership liability results, he is liable as though he were an actual member of the partnership.
(b) When no partnership liability results, he is liable jointly with the other persons, if any, so consenting to the contract or representation as to incur liability, otherwise separately.
Similarly, the Revised Uniform Partnership Act provides:
SECTION 308. LIABILITY OF PURPORTED PARTNER.
(a) If a person, by words or conduct, purports to be a partner, or consents to being represented by another as a partner, in a partnership or with one or more persons not partners, the purported partner is liable to a person to whom the representation is made, if that person, relying on the representation, enters into a transaction with the actual or purported partnership. If the representation, either by the purported partner or by a person with the purported partner’s consent, is made in a public manner, the purported partner is liable to a person who relies upon the purported partnership even if the purported partner is not aware of being held out as a partner to the claimant. If partnership liability results, the purported partner is liable with respect to that liability as if the purported partner were a partner. If no partnership liability results, the purported partner is liable with respect to that liability jointly and severally with any other person consenting to the representation.
Now, can I come up with plenty of counterarguments and ways to make this liability less likely, and those are compelling arguments, too, in many settings. However, I cannot come up with such a good argument that would make it worth using "Driver-Partner" as my term. How about "Driver-Teammate" or "Driver-Affiliate" or "Driver-Collaborator" or even "Driver-Member?" For me, the specificity of the term "partner," and the liability that can follow without formal action, would warrant avoiding its use. But maybe that's just me.