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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Was it a hack or just a ride between friends? A Baltimore jury — with me on it — decides. | COMMENTARY

On some of the Baltimore area's busiest streets, pedestrians sometimes hail rides from hacks for a fee.

Summoned once again to civic duty in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, I found myself this time one of six jurors faced with the following question: Was that a hack or just a friend giving a senior citizen and her son a ride to the Giant in Reisterstown Road Plaza?

If a hack, then the ride constituted a violation of the driver’s insurance policy, and the insurance company would not pay for medical expenses incurred by Mom and Son from injuries sustained in an accident that occurred during said hack.

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Before I go on, some of you might be wondering what a hack is. Kristen Johnson, a native of Baltimore, described it a few years ago in a peer-reviewed journal as “Baltimore’s unique informal transportation system.”

Johnson, then a graduate student in city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that hacking had its historic roots in “Black exclusion in public transit.” It came to represent “a collective effort of communities engaging with their own human and social capital to counteract their shared socioeconomic vulnerabilities.”

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Those who use hacks might not own cars or have a driver’s license. They might not have time to wait for a bus, might not have a credit card for an Uber or Lyft. They might have a disability. They might be standing in the rain.

“To hail a hack,” Johnson wrote, “a person can go to any inner-city street and dangle two fingers downward, alerting anyone in the incoming traffic that they are seeking a hack. Any driver can stop, pick up a potential rider and transport them to their destination. The system of pricing is unwritten, informally established through routine use throughout the city. It is a discounted and bargained rate, which accounts for time, convenience and distance.”

As, essentially, an unlicensed taxi, a hack violates the terms of an insurance policy by making the insured vehicle “available for public hire.” And you can understand why, in calculating risk and liability, an insurance company would insist that their customers refrain from taking passengers who hail them for rides.

So, back to the question: On that day in January 2019, when Mom and Son were passengers in a Ford Escort driven by an elderly person described as “an acquaintance,” was the acquaintance serving as a hack or was he just being a friendly guy giving them a ride to and from the plaza? Everything turned on that question.

During the ride home, a black pickup truck or sport utility vehicle — it was described both ways — slammed into the rear of the Ford Escort and took off. Mom and Son got banged around inside the car, and Mom experienced emotional distress from the shock of the collision. They went after the driver’s insurance company for $30,000. The insurance company refused to pay because of the hack issue. (Under state law, defendants have the right to request a jury trial if the amount in dispute is more than $15,000. In this month’s election, Marylanders voted overwhelmingly for a constitutional amendment to raise that threshold to $25,000.)

I listened to both sides, and both sides were well represented — Mandy Miliman for the plaintiffs, Ryan Naugle for the insurance company. I listened to the instructions presented by a most thorough and pleasant judge, Yolanda Tanner. I kept an open mind toward the insurance company’s defense of its refusal to pay Mom and Son.

But the whole time I’m sitting there, behind the brass rail of the jury box, teased by a squeaky voice inside that says: “Really? The big insurance company can’t settle this matter with a 78-year-old woman and her 60-year-old son because they took a ride from a guy?”

Was the guy really a hack?

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He gave Mom and Son a ride so they could shop for groceries. They gave him, as far as I could tell, $10 so he could buy some lunch and, during a stop on the way home, a snack at a pharmacy. There was no evidence that Mom and Son offered him anything more. If the insurance company wanted to prove the guy was a hack, maybe it should have hired a private investigator to track him for a day or two to see if that was his game.

So the jurors were not convinced that the guy’s Ford Escort had been transformed into a hack. But no juror was happy with the testimony, either. When presented with transcripts of answers they had given in depositions long before trial, Mom and Son, as well as the alleged hack, denied just about everything they had said. That got to be pretty strange; it made us less sympathetic toward Mom and Son and cut into what we thought they deserved.

In the end, we awarded them about $11,000 in medical expenses and something extra for time, inconvenience and stress, a total of $14,383 between them. Mom got emotional when she heard that. I’m sure the money was important. Some measure of victory over an insurance company probably felt good, too.


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