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Can I Sue a Food Delivery Company?

Food delivery companies are all the rage these days. From DoorDash to GrubHub, and Postmates to Uber Eats, food delivery services are very popular with consumers, and for good reason. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, working from home or just staying indoors in general has become the norm for many people. Even Amazon is doing grocery deliveries, and just about everyone has at least one food delivery app on their phone.

But what if something goes wrong when the food is being delivered? What if a food delivery driver gets into a car accident with you? Delivery accidents aside, what if they deliver you half-eaten food, a wrong order, or worse, you get food poisoning?

In such circumstances, you may be able to sue a food delivery company because you might have a personal injury claim. A personal injury lawyer or car accident attorney may be able to help you determine whether you have a case and whether you can take legal action.

Employer Liability for Food Delivery Companies

Before you can even sue the delivery company, you have to show they are liable to you through some kind of legal theory. Since there's always someone in the middle — a delivery person, driver, restaurant, etc. — it's a little harder to connect your car accident or food poisoning directly to the company. So how exactly is the delivery company responsible in this long chain of people?

Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer"), a food delivery company could be found liable if you can prove that its drivers are not independent contractors, but rather, employees of the delivery company. Some states, such as California, have created laws that might classify certain “gig workers," such as delivery drivers, as employees.

Therefore, if you can show that the delivery driver is an employee of the food delivery company, then the company will be “vicariously liable," which means that a court will hold the food delivery company responsible for the wrongful actions of its driver. While states might differ in how they interpret liability in these cases, generally you have to show that:

  • The delivery driver had an agreement to work under the authority of the food delivery company, such as an employment contract;
  • The food delivery company had control over the driver, such as by setting their work hours or deciding which customers they should deliver to;
  • At the time of the accident, the delivery driver's actions were within the "scope of employment"; that is, they were on a delivery job and not tending to a personal matter.

Another way that a food delivery company can become responsible for its delivery person's actions is if you can show that the delivery person was an agent of the company under the law of agency. Again, state laws differ on how they define agency relationships, but in general, you have to show that:

  • The food delivery company and the driver consented to have the driver act as the company's agent, such as by giving written permission to the driver to hold themselves out as a representative of the food delivery company;
  • The delivery person took action on behalf of the delivery company, such as by delivering food to a person that was a customer of the delivery company;
  • The food delivery company controlled the delivery person's actions, such as by giving them instructions on which routes to take and where not to go.

Let's say you've been able to show that the delivery person was acting on behalf of the delivery company, whether by being their employee or by being their agent. Now that you can show the company has some level of responsibility, what do you actually sue them for?

Food Delivery Negligence

A notification comes through on your phone, saying your driver is on their way. Thirty minutes later, the delivery person hands you a ripped bag. “Sorry bro, it came like that!" they exclaim. Being as tolerant as you are, you laugh it off and go inside your house to bite down on that tasty sandwich you were so excited about.

Unfortunately, the moment you bite into the sandwich, you taste mud. It turns out your delivery driver wasn't completely honest with you. Your neighbor hurries to you with their camera footage showing the delivery person dropped the bag on the ground on the way to your house, but it's too late. You've already eaten some of the dirt. As the food poisoning sets in, you wonder if you can sue the delivery company because your driver was just a young, broke student without personal insurance.

Let's backtrack a little. It doesn't even have to be your driver who is on their way to deliver food to you. It could be a delivery driver that is driving the food over for someone else. They crash into your car on their way, and now you have a dented car and a stiff back, wondering who you can sue. Same story — they're a poor college sophomore with a car insurance policy that barely meets your state's minimum requirements. Can you go after the real money bag — the multibillion-dollar food delivery company and their even more loaded insurance company?

Under a theory of agency or vicarious liability, you can sue the delivery company for negligence. To prove negligence, you have to argue the following elements to a court:

  1. Duty: The food delivery company owed a duty to you to make sure their delivery drivers don't crash into your car or that you don't get poisoned by the food they deliver to you. You might even argue that they had a duty to hire and train more competent drivers and delivery persons.
  2. Breach: The food delivery company breached its duty by failing to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm to you as a driver on the road or as a recipient of food delivered to your home.
  3. Causation: The food delivery company's breach of its duty is what caused your car to get dented, your back to hurt from the car collision, or your stomach to wrench from the food poisoning.
  4. Damages: The body shop has quoted you $5,000 to fix your car, and the other “body shop" has billed you an arm and a leg for treating your arms, legs, back, and stomach. You are damaged because you've got bills and expenses to pay — and you're in pain.

Food Delivery Breach of Contract

Let's go back to our example with the broke college student who gave you food poisoning. On top of suing for negligence, you may also be able to sue the food delivery company for violating its contract with you.

Remember when you installed the delivery app you had to scroll down a wall of text to hit “I Agree" before you could create an account? Well, it turns out all that language actually means you may have a valid and binding agreement directly with the delivery company. You can sue them for breach of contract by showing:

  1. Contract: You have to show you have an agreement with the delivery company that says they'll safely deliver food to you in exchange for your payment. You can screenshot the confusing legal stuff you had to click “Accept" on or find the App Licensing Agreement or Terms and Conditions on the app or website of the company you registered with.
  2. Performance: You have to prove you held up your end of the deal by actually paying for the food delivery. (The company, on the other hand, failed to perform because they didn't bring you safe food.)
  3. Breach: The food delivery company brought you mud-riddled food that gave you food poisoning. That's certainly not what you bargained for even if you blindly hit “I Accept" on their terms and conditions.
  4. Damages: You exchanged an arm and a leg for a functioning stomach. (The hospital charged you money to pump your stomach after you got food poisoning.)

You've sued the delivery company for negligence and breach of contract. But what will you get out of it?

Available Remedies for Injuries

If you win your case against a food delivery company, you may be able to recover compensatory damages in the form of special (economic) damages and general (non-economic) damages.

Special damages compensate you for expenses relating to your injuries that you had to pay for out of your own pocket. Examples include:

  • Cost to replace or repair property, such as a dented bumper on your vehicle
  • Past and future lost income, such as wages missed from work
  • Past and future medical expenses, such as hospital bills and medication costs
  • Household expenses, such as caregiver services, incurred during your recovery

General damages cover losses that are harder to quantify in numbers. Whether food poisoning landed you in the hospital or a collision with a delivery driver left you in a cast, you have a right to be made whole. Examples include:

  • Mental and physical suffering
  • Physical disability, e.g. from food poisoning or car accident
  • Loss of enjoyment of life due to your injuries

Disclaimers and Limitations

Even though the above-stated remedies may be awarded in court, not all sorts of damages may be available against a food delivery company. The terms and conditions you agreed to when you created your account typically contain disclaimers that expressly limit the company's liability to you.

For example, one delivery company might put in their contract that they will not be liable to customers for punitive, special, or consequential damages. What this means is that when enforcing your contract, most states will limit the extent of damages (money) you will receive if you win your case. More consumer-friendly states, on the other hand, might partially or completely ignore these kinds of disclaimers as a matter of public policy.

The delivery company's contract might also state that their liability to you cannot exceed the total sum of money you've paid to them over a certain period. Again, whether or not the court will place a "cap" on your total recovery is a question of whether your state's laws allow delivery companies to limit their exposure through contracts. Some courts have ruled that certain limitations on liability can be void because they undermine the good of society. Still, the way your particular case might pan out is highly dependent on specific facts and the nature of your injuries, and having a legal professional who can advocate for you can make all the difference in the eyes of a judge or jury.

Forced Arbitration

The last catch is that your contract with the food delivery company might require you to go to arbitration for certain kinds of claims that would otherwise be made in court. Arbitration is an out-of-court process in which the parties agree to appoint an independent decisionmaker, the arbitrator, to decide the dispute in accordance with the terms of the arbitration provision. The decision of the arbitrator is typically binding.

An arbitration clause in the terms and conditions agreement might state, for instance, that if your claim against the app is higher than the small claims limit in your state, you must file your complaint with a private arbitrator or arbitration company instead of going through the court system. Though it's not always the case, arbitration is supposed to be a cheaper and faster way to resolve a dispute.

Because of their massive user base all across the country and potential exposure to numerous lawsuits, many technology companies, including those who develop delivery apps, often prefer to force you into arbitration so they can limit the amount of resources they must spend to defend against a case. Having a lawyer on your side who has experience representing people in arbitrations can come in handy.

Contact an Injury or Accident Lawyer

Whether you live in a small town or a big city like Manhattan, New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, auto accidents and food delivery problems may follow you wherever you go. If you are thinking about filing a lawsuit, keep in mind that the statute of limitations under your state's law limits the time in which you can file a claim.

An experienced personal injury lawyer or car accident attorney can provide you with legal assistance and help you determine whether bringing a lawsuit against a food delivery company is in your best interests.

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