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


Summoned once again to civic duty before the Baltimore City Circuit Court, this time I found myself one of six jurors confronted with the following question: Was it a hack or just a friend taking an elderly person and his Son at the Giant in Travelerstown Road Place?

If it was a hack, the ride would be a violation of the driver’s insurance policy and the insurance company wouldn’t pay for medical bills mum and son incurred from injuries sustained in the crash. an accident that occurred during said hack.

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

Johnson, then a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that the hack had its historical roots in “the exclusion of black people on public transportation.” It has come to represent “a collective effort of communities engaging with their own human and social capital to counter their shared socio-economic vulnerabilities”.

Those using hacks may 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 a Lyft. They might have a disability. They could be standing in the rain.

“To hail a hack,” Johnson wrote, “a person can walk to any downtown street and hang two fingers down, alerting anyone in incoming traffic that they are looking for a hack. Any driver can stop, pick up a potential passenger and transport them to their destination.The fare system is unwritten, established informally by common use throughout the city.It is a reduced fare and negotiated, which takes into account time, convenience and distance.

Like, 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 the calculation of risk and liability, an insurance company would insist that its customers refrain from taking passengers calling 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 that acquaintance serving as a hack or was he just a friend a guy who drives them to and from the square? Everything revolved around this question.

During the drive home, a black pick-up truck or sport utility vehicle – it was described going both ways – slammed into the back of the Ford Escort and took off. Mom and her son were hit inside the car, and mom felt emotional distress from the shock of the collision. They sued the driver’s insurance company for $30,000. The insurance company refused to pay because of the hacking problem. (Under state law, defendants have the right to seek a jury trial if the amount in dispute is more than $15,000. In this month’s election, Marylanders voted to an overwhelming majority 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 towards the insurance company’s defense of its refusal to pay mom and son.

But all the while, I’m sitting there, behind the brass railing of the jury box, teased by a creaky voice inside that says, “Really? The big insurance company can’t settle this case with a 78-year-old woman and her 60-year-old son because they got caught by a guy?

Was the guy really a hack?

He chilled mom and son so they could do their shopping. They gave him, as far as I know, $10 so he could buy lunch and, at a stop on the way back, a snack from 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 pirate, maybe they should have hired a private investigator to follow him around for a day or two to see if it was his game.

So the jurors weren’t convinced that the guy’s Ford Escort had turned into a hack. But neither juror was satisfied with the testimony either. When presented with transcripts of answers they had given in depositions well before the trial, mom and son, along with the alleged hack, denied just about everything they had said. This must be quite strange; it made us less sympathetic towards mom and son and cut into what we thought they deserved.

In the end, we awarded them about $11,000 in medical costs 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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