Is Uber following Florida law, or breaking it? State agencies still won't say

A state agency awaits the Legislature's ruling on the validity of Uber's insurance.
Uber, a rideshare company, remains in a gray zone in Florida over whether its insurance policy adheres to state law. Associated Press
Uber, a rideshare company, remains in a gray zone in Florida over whether its insurance policy adheres to state law.Associated Press
Published September 8 2015

TAMPA — It's been almost a year and a half and state leaders still can't say whether Uber's insurance adheres to Florida law.

In 2014, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said the rideshare company's policy provides legally binding coverage. But the FOIR then left it up to another state agency to determine whether Uber's insurance meets all of the state requirements.

That agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, had to decide whether the policy, when combined with a personal auto policy held by an Uber driver, would provide the coverage necessary under the Florida Financial Responsibility Law.

But 17 months after Uber launched its Florida service, the department still hasn't opined on whether the rideshare company's policy checks all the right boxes under Florida law.

To this day, Uber remains in an undefined gray zone — not in compliance with Florida law but not quite illegal, either.

The state's refusal to deal with Uber has only made the local situation murkier: Uber and Hillsborough County regulators are still at odds over whether drivers comply with rules that govern for-hire vehicles.

Uber continues to operate despite the ongoing uncertainty at the local and state levels — or perhaps because of it.

Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Nancy Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the state department, said until the state Legislature determines whether Uber is operating as a taxi service, or rideshares are given their own definition under "transportation network companies," the department is unable to answer questions regarding its coverage.

"We can't use our authority beyond our scope, and our scope is statute," Rasmussen said. "So, as soon as its changed by the Legislatures through a bill passing, we will enforce what they decide."

But the Legislature failed to pass any new regulations during the past two sessions. A majority of the main players will still be in office this time around, so it is unclear if the 2016 session will be any different. Regardless, it will be at least six to nine months before people in Florida could get any clarity from state leaders.

"Insurance is a super-traditional business, regulation of insurance is super-traditional, and anything that's new can be complicated," said Tom Baker, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches about rideshare insurance in his classes. "What I'm sympathetic to is that insurance regulator who doesn't want to be the person who is accused of having approved something that didn't work."

His sympathy also extends to Uber. While it is "certainly unfortunate" that state leaders haven't been able to provide a clear "yes" or "no" regarding the validity of Uber's insurance, Baker said it's unsurprising, then, that the company continues to operate under its current model.

"It gives you a lot of sympathy for Uber just going ahead and sticking with what it's doing," Baker said, "because it hasn't been told it's wrong."

Ultimately, the most important issue is whether the insurance claim will be paid if an accident occurs, said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Brandes has advocated for the past couple of years for regulations that would allow Uber to operate legally. But even without that legislation, he said he "absolutely" believes such claims would be paid.

Uber has given more than a million rides in the Tampa Bay area and more than 8 million rides in South Florida.

"I haven't heard that Uber has failed to pay," Baker said. "I haven't done a careful investigation, but I think with this big of a business model, we'd all know if there was an accident and Uber failed to pay."

But neither the FOIR or the state department will fully recognize Uber's policy as legal and in compliance until the Legislature amends the statute. Brandes said he and other legislators are ready to take another swing at passing new regulations during next year's session.

"Both of these agencies are saying we need more clarity from the Legislature before we have the ability to act," Brandes said. "If the statue was reworked, then I think you would have much more clarity, and you would have a definition that fits."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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