Dan Rodricks: Was it a hack or just a trip between friends? A jury in Baltimore – with me on it – will decide.

Dan Rodricks: Was it a hack or just a trip between friends?  A jury in Baltimore – with me on it – will decide.

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

If it was a hack, the trip constituted a violation of the driver’s insurance policy, and the insurance company would not pay for medical expenses incurred by the mother and son from injuries sustained in an accident that occurred during said hack.

Before I 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 hacking had its historical roots in “black exclusion in public transportation.” It came to represent “a collective effort of communities engaging with their own human and social capital to counter their shared socio-economic vulnerabilities.”

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

“To salute a hack,” Johnson wrote, “a person may go to any street in the city and dangle two fingers downward, alerting all in the incoming traffic that they are seeking a hack. Any driver may stop, pick 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 negotiated price, taking into account time, convenience and distance.”

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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 an insurance company, when calculating risk and liability, insists that their customers refrain from taking passengers who shout at them on a ride.

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

During the journey home, a black pickup or sports car – it was described either way – slammed into the back of the Ford Escort and took off. Mother and son fought around inside the car, and mother 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 problem. (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 overwhelmingly voted in favor of 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 very thorough and pleasant judge, Yolanda Tanner. I kept an open mind to the insurance company’s defense of its refusal to pay mother and son.

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But all the while I sit there, behind the brass rail of the jury box, teased by a creaking 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 took a ride from a guy?”

Was the guy really a hacker?

He gave mother and son a ride so they could buy 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 mother and son offered him anything more. If the insurance company wanted to prove the guy was a hacker, maybe they should have hired a private investigator to track him down 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 been turned into a hack. But no jurors were satisfied with the testimony either. When mother and son were presented with transcripts of answers they had given in depositions long before the trial, mother and son, as well as the alleged hack, denied just about everything they had said. It must be quite strange; it made us less sympathetic to mother and son and cut into what we thought they deserved.

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

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