Aug. 15--On a cool November afternoon last year, Maria Scarpa, 87, finished shopping at a Hallandale Walmart and dialed a number for GoGoGrandparent, a California startup that functions as a middle man between ride-hailing apps and elderly men and women without smartphones.
Scarpa was connected to a Lyft driver named Ranoel Gonzalez. A text from GoGoGrandparent told Gonzalez that Scarpa was "visually impaired and will need you to honk/call and introduce yourself once you've arrived."
When Gonzalez arrived, Scarpa waited outside with a full cart and Gonzalez parked 30 yards away. Whether Gonzalez got out to escort Scarpa across the lot to the car, and whether he was supposed to do so has been up for debate.
What is certain is Scarpa crossed the parking lot alone and was hit by another car, suffering injuries and dying.
GoGoGrandparent, Gonzalez, Lyft and the driver of the car that killed Scarpa are named in a civil lawsuit. But attorney Andrew Yaffa dedicated the most retail in the complaint to the startup service that he said focuses on elderly individuals who wish to maintain their independence while advertising itself to be an affordable and safe transportation solution.
"If GoGo had provided a driver that did what they represented they do, this death does not happen," said Yaffa, who filed the suit on Aug. 9.
GoGoGrandparent, founded in 2016, advertises itself online as a service to turn "on demand transportation companies like Lyft into services that help families take better care of older adults." They insist safety is one of their "highest priorities." However, they also are clear that "drivers are not specially trained to work with older adults" and that the service should not be used for passengers requiring physical contact.
However, Yaffa wrote in the complaint that the service's language implies that they can accommodate riders with visual impairments or equipment like walkers, but at the same time they do not provide drivers with any training in assisting these riders. "In actuality, they are simply farming this out to normal Uber and Lyft drivers," he said.
Darren Shu, a marketing manager at GoGoGrandparent, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday that the service screens for drivers by only allowing those with a strong customer satisfaction rating on Lyft or Uber to be matched with customers.
Once a driver is matched, they receive a call or text to let them know more about the rider and their needs. As part of a family-notification system within the service, a rider's loved one can receive texts with the driver information, make and model, as well as a live map of their relative's pickup and drop-off location.
Nonetheless, Shu stressed the company is not a transportation company, but instead works with "transportation partners." He said the company likes to see itself as a "digital caregiver."
Representatives from Lyft declined to comment on their relationship with GoGoGrandparent. They also declined to comment on the lawsuit brought against them by Yaffa.
Justin Boogaard, a co-founder of GoGoGrandparent, told the Sun Sentinel that the idea for the company came to him when his grandmother wanted to see a show in 2016 but had no way of getting there.
"She asked for Uber's number and I told her that they don't have one," he said.
Boogaard created a prototype for his grandmother, which was shared with her friends and kept expanding until he realized he had a business on his hands. Today, the service charges customers a 27-cent-per-minute surcharge for every minute a ride takes, on top of whatever Uber or Lyft charges.
Uber and Lyft were only founded within the last decade, but today the two ride-hailing services have more than 50 million users in nearly every city in the United States. However, as the services have grown and disrupted businesses, they also years ago drew the ire of local governments intent on regulating them.
Boogaard said that GoGoGrandparent has completed nearly one million rides through Uber and Lyft and counts "tens of thousands of clients" in the U.S. and Canada. He said he often receives letters and reviews from happy customers and that nothing as serious as the accusations in Yaffa's lawsuit have ever been leveled on the company in the past. "It's a terrible tragedy and we wish it didn't happen," he said.
The complaint filed by Yaffa said Gonzalez rolled down his window and called to Scarpa, who began to push her shopping cart across the crosswalk. However, in a statement given to police, Gonzalez said he called to tell Scarpa he would "be right there" to assist her but she continued to walk.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel on Wednesday, Gonzalez further described his account of what happened.
Gonzalez said that when he arrived to Walmart, he rolled down his window to signal to Scarpa and she signaled back to let him know she'd seen him. Gonzalez said he then pulled into the parking lot and double parked close to where Scarpa was located. He opened his trunk from inside of his car so he could have it ready for her groceries and then opened the door to get out of the car to help Scarpa cross the intersection.
However, Gonzalez said Scarpa was already halfway across the intersection by the time he opened the door, and was hit before he could get out of his car.
"I feel so bad for her," said Gonzalez, sounding grave. He said the tragic incident sits with him to this day. "I have two small kids and every time we go to Home Depot or something like that, I'm just petrified of someone doing the same thing."
Gonzalez said before Scarpa's death, he had picked up riders through GoGoGrandparent. "It's a regular ride," he said. "All we get is an additional text message that show us specifics as to who we are picking up and if they have a disability so we can locate them."
Scarpa was hit by a car driven by Agnes Tagliarini, who has been charged with careless driving that resulted in a fatality. A witness driving behind Tagliarini said he saw the car suddenly accelerate near the crosswalk and a police report said that based on witness statements and statements from Tagliarini it "appears" that Tagliarini hit the acceleration, mistaking it for the brake.
The traffic case is pending in the courts, and Tagliarini has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Harvey Greenberg, Tagliarini's lawyer in the traffic case, declined to comment on the pending case. He said he would not be representing Tagliarini in the new civil suit. When asked about the status of his client, he said Tagliarini is elderly herself and "has a lot of medical issues."
Boogaard said he was disappointed that the Lyft driver did not personally escort Scarpa across the parking lot, according to the details of the incident that he was aware of. He said that GoGoGrandparent does not offer insurance coverage, but he expects the lawsuit to be resolved by Lyft's policies.
Boogaard said GoGoGrandparent has put drivers on a blocked list for failing to do things like turn off the radio or roll up windows, but acknowledged the company is limited in how it can weed out potential drivers ahead of time. "We can't select from a white list of drivers," he said.
Yaffa said he looks forward to the impending litigation, believing that the case has larger ramifications beyond Scarpa's death.
Florida, where there are over 6 million seniors over the age of 70, will continue to be a draw for elderly populations looking to retire, said Yaffa. Similar to protections for the care of children, he said care for the elderly must be prioritized and services who promise to deliver that care, should be held accountable.
"It's a great concept," Yaffa said of GoGoGrandparent, "but if you're going to talk the talk you need to walk the walk."
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