How Amazon Hooked America on Fast Delivery While Avoiding Responsibility for Crashes
Our investigation found Amazon escapes responsibility for its role in deaths and serious injuries even though the company keeps a tight grip on how third-party delivery drivers do their jobs.
September 5, 2019
This story was co-published with The New York Times.
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When she added Gabrielle’s name to the chart in her kitchen, Judy Kennedy could picture the annual ritual. At birthdays she would ask her newest grandchild to stand up straight, heels against the door frame, so she could mark Gabrielle’s height beside that of her other granddaughter in the Maine house the family has lived in since the 1800s.
But there are no lines for Gabrielle.
In January, the 9-month-old was killed when a driver delivering Amazon.com packages crashed a 26-foot rented box truck into the back of her mother’s Jeep. The baby was strapped into a car seat in the back.
The delivery driver, a subcontractor ferrying pallets of Amazon boxes from suburban Boston to five locations in Maine, said in an interview that he was running late and failed to spot the Jeep in time to avoid the crash.
If Gabrielle’s parents, who have hired lawyers, try to hold Amazon accountable, they will confront a company that shields itself from liability for accidents involving the drivers who deliver its billions of packages a year.
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In its relentless push for e-commerce dominance, Amazon has built a huge logistics operation in recent years to get more goods to customers’ homes in less and less time. As it moves to reduce its reliance on legacy carriers like United Parcel Service, the retailer has created a network of contractors across the country that allows the company to expand and shrink the delivery force as needed, while avoiding the costs of taking on permanent employees.
But Amazon’s promise of speedy delivery has come at a price, one largely hidden from public view. An investigation by ProPublica identified more than 60 accidents since June 2015 involving Amazon delivery contractors that resulted in serious injuries, including 10 deaths. That tally is most likely a fraction of the accidents that have occurred: Many people don’t sue, and those who do can’t always tell when Amazon is involved, court records, police reports and news accounts show.
Even as Amazon argues that it bears no legal responsibility for the human toll, it maintains a tight grip on how the delivery drivers do their jobs.
Their paychecks are signed by hundreds of companies, but often Amazon directs, through an app, the order of the deliveries and the route to each destination. Amazon software tracks drivers’ progress, and a dispatcher in an Amazon warehouse can call them if they fall behind schedule. Amazon requires that 999 out of 1,000 deliveries arrive on time, according to work orders obtained from contractors with drivers in eight states.
Amazon has repeatedly said in court that it is not responsible for the actions of its contractors, citing agreements that require them, as one puts it, to “defend, indemnify and hold harmless Amazon.” Just last week, an operations manager for Amazon testified in Chicago that it signs such agreements with all its “delivery service partners,” who assume the liability and the responsibility for legal costs. The agreements cover “all loss or damage to personal property or bodily harm including death.”
Amazon vigilantly enforces the terms of those agreements. In New Jersey, when a contractor’s insurer failed to pay Amazon’s legal bills in a suit brought by a physician injured in a crash, Amazon sued to force the insurer to pick up the tab. In California, the company sued contractors, telling courts that any damages arising from crashes there should be billed to the delivery companies.
“I think anyone who thinks about Amazon has very conflicted feelings,” said Tim Hauck, whose sister, Stacey Hayes Curry, was killed last year by a driver delivering Amazon packages in a San Diego office park. “It’s sure nice to get something in two days for free. You’re always impressed with that side of it. But this idea that they’ve walled themselves off from responsibility is disturbing.”
“You’ve got this wonderful convenience with this technology,” he added, “but there’s a human cost to it.”
Judy Kennedy flips through pictures of her granddaughter Gabrielle Kennedy at her home in North Berwick, Maine. The baby was killed when a driver delivering Amazon packages crashed a 26-foot rented box truck into the back of her mother’s Jeep.
(Sarah Rice, special to ProPublica)
Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, is famously secretive about details of its operations, including the scale of its delivery network. In many of the accidents involving its contractors, drivers were using cars, trucks and cargo vans that bore no hint of Amazon’s corporate logo. The truck involved in Gabrielle Kennedy’s death, for example, was marked only “Penske Truck Rental.”
Amazon declined to answer questions about the demands it places on drivers, the anonymity of delivery vehicles or any requirement that these contractors indemnify Amazon.
The company said that even one serious incident was too many, but would not disclose how many people had been killed or seriously injured by drivers shuttling Amazon packages from warehouses to customers’ homes — the final leg of the journey, which the company calls the last mile.
In a written statement to ProPublica and to BuzzFeed, which published an article last week on Amazon’s delivery practices, Amazon said: “The assertions do not provide an accurate representation of Amazon’s commitment to safety and all the measures we take to ensure millions of packages are delivered to customers without incident.
“Whether it’s state-of-the art telemetrics and advanced safety technology in last-mile vans, driver safety training programs, or continuous improvements within our mapping and routing technology, we have invested tens of millions of dollars in safety mechanisms across our network, and regularly communicate safety best practices to drivers. We are committed to greater investments and management focus to continuously improve our safety performance.”
Among those killed in the Amazon delivery crashes ProPublica examined were a 22-year-old former Temple University student crushed when a contractor turned left into his motorcycle, an 89-year-old former Macy’s Herald Square saleswoman struck as she crossed a New Jersey street and an 89-year-old Pennsylvania grandmother hit in front of an Outback Steakhouse.
Telesfora Escamilla was walking in a Chicago crosswalk three days before Christmas in 2016 when an Amazon delivery contractor turned left and hit her. Escamilla had been preparing to celebrate the holidays and her 85th birthday with her family. Instead, they planned her funeral.
Eleanore Escamilla, left, with her sister Irma Escamilla, holding a photo of their mother, Telesfora Escamilla, who was in a Chicago crosswalk when an Amazon contractor made a left turn and hit her.
(Taylor Glascock for ProPublica)
It’s difficult to determine the accident rate and safety records of Amazon’s army of contractors because the company does not disclose that information and much of its delivery operation falls into a regulatory void. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucks and collects data on truck collisions, doesn’t track crashes involving the smaller cargo vans that are the workhorses of Amazon’s delivery force.
“Nothing applies,” said Chris Turner, director of crash and data programs at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, whose members include federal, state and local officials that enforce trucking rules.
The box truck that killed Gabrielle was big enough — more than 10,000 pounds — that the fatal crash would have been included in federal regulators’ records of the subcontractor, if the company hadn’t gone out of business after the accident. But nothing in the current reporting requirements would have connected it to Amazon.
On the day of the crash, Ellen Kennedy was on her way to drop off the baby at her mother’s house before heading to work at a veterinary practice. It was about 6:30 a.m., still dark.
Months later, Kennedy still can’t shake her memory of the delivery truck’s lights in her rearview mirror.
“I can’t eat or sleep because when I close my eyes all I see are the headlights coming at me and all I hear are my sickening screams as I try to open your door to get to you,” she wrote on Facebook. “And I beg God to tell me what I did so wrong that he gave me you, the child I longed for, and then took you away.”
Ellen Kennedy wears a necklace her daughter would have received when she was older.
(Sarah Rice, special to ProPublica)