As on every other day, Klaus Bopp made his way to work this Tuesday morning at around 8:35 a.m. Bopp is blind from birth, uses a long stick to orient himself and has been walking this route in Bremen Neustadt for 30 years. He knows every millimeter. It happens after about two minutes: Shortly before an intersection, the 50-year-old falls over two e-scooters lying across the sidewalk. One he still grabs with the stick, with the second he has no chance. He falls on his right hip and breaks the femoral neck.
“I was so angry, because it’s not the first time that these things are in the way without warning,” recalls Bopp in an interview with NewsABC.net. It was clear to him: there had to be an accident at some point.
Bopp’s anger will boil up again in the months after the accident. Little by little it becomes clear that nobody wants to be responsible for the broken bone. Neither the Swedish rental company Voi, which set up the e-scooters on the morning of the accident, nor Voi’s liability insurance, nor the city of Bremen, which issued an operating license for the scooters. The case is also legally tricky, although it is well documented by the police and eyewitnesses. The question of who is to blame for the fall over the overturned e-scooter is completely unresolved and reveals large gaps in regulation in Germany.
Bopp’s attorney wants to set precedent
Neither the authorities nor the e-scooter company Voi contact the injured Bopp. In response to our inquiry, the company said that they were very saddened by this tragic accident. “We are doing our best to find a suitable solution for everyone,” says the Stockholm headquarters. The solution does not yet exist, however. Because Bopp cannot believe that his broken bone should not have any consequences, he turns to the legal advice of the German Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There the business lawyer Thomas Hiby takes over the case. He now wants to set a precedent and take a lawsuit for damages to court. According to the compensation table, a sum of between 12,000 and 25,000 euros would be normal. If Hiby is successful with this, it would have consequences for the entire e-scooter industry in Germany.
Finding the culprit turns out to be difficult. The police, who arrived at the scene of the accident a few minutes after the fall, initially assumed property damage. While in the ambulance, Bopp is questioned as a possible suspect, not as a victim. “If you run into it, you are the cause and therefore to blame for the accident,” writes Bopp in the memory log. The allegation clears up quickly, but no further investigations are made. Not even the police could contact Voi “in a reasonable time”, says the police report.
Vois lawyers and insurance refer to a liability gap
Attorney Hiby also has to wait a few weeks for a response: The company’s lawyers see “no basis for liability”. They refer to an unknown third party who is said to have knocked over the properly installed scooter. “The company bears no responsibility for this,” write Voi’s lawyers.
DEVK, with which Voi has taken out legally required liability insurance, also follows this line of argument. “If the users of the e-scooters have parked them properly, the subsequent behavior of uninvolved third parties cannot be attributed to the owner Voi,” said the insurance company NewsABC.net. It also explains that it only covers accidents involving moving scooters. Nor would she step in for a fall over an upright parked e-scooter.
A plausible scenario is established for both the company and the insurance company – one that frees everyone involved from responsibility.
No matter how many people stumble over e-scooters lying around, according to the law, neither the insurance company nor the owner of the e-scooter is responsible. Lawyer Hiby assesses the facts differently. “Anyone who creates a source of danger must also bear proportionate responsibility.”
Eleven days in hospital
The fall had far-reaching consequences for Klaus Bopp. After the accident, he was in the hospital eleven days and had to undergo an operation. Doctors believe it will take three to six months before he can walk normally again. Today, almost four months after the accident, he still cannot return to work. Since he works in the public service, his trade association pays the treatment costs. He still suffers financial losses, because instead of receiving a full salary, he receives sick pay. It’s not just the physical and financial consequences that bothers him. “It also concerns me mentally. I am no longer traveling at the same pace as I used to be because I have to reckon with things everywhere. “
There are hardly any parking rules
In Germany, e-scooters are generally allowed to park anywhere on the sidewalk, as long as the municipality does not impose stricter rules. That is why the police in the Klaus Bopp case apparently came to the conclusion that the e-scooters had been parked in accordance with the law, even though they protruded from the house wall across the sidewalk.
“The legislature has not formulated any clear rules where e-scooters can be set up,” says lawyer Hiby to NewsABC.net. He sees a serious legislative loophole in this.
In many places, this regulatory loophole leads to parking chaos on the sidewalks. Bopp’s hometown of Bremen is one of the few cities that have set clear rules of the game. The city of Voi has stipulated that there must be at least 1.50 meters of remaining sidewalk when parking. If someone complains to the public order office, the e-scooter providers have 24 hours to switch the vehicles.
Business model favors wildlife parking
The business model of the e-scooter companies is based heavily on the fact that the scooters can be found everywhere. “Availability is crucial,” says a Voi spokesman. In the industry, one speaks of the “free floating model”. Every customer can borrow them and put them back where they want.
For Hilke Groenewold, expert for accessibility at the German Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, this is precisely the danger, especially for visually impaired and blind people. “Even sighted people can trip over it at night,” says Groenewold. The association wants fixed parking spaces, preferably on the street. “If they have to stand on sidewalks, then only in defined areas that are tactile and visually recognizable,” says the expert. However, this is only moderately attractive for e-scooter companies, as it limits availability.
Voi camps Responsibility partially
Voi assured NewsABC.net that the company takes sidewalk safety very seriously. The Swedish company will be represented on German roads in June 2019 with its e-scooter range. Today she is active in twelve cities with a five-digit number of scooters. The problem with fleet management: Voi has – as usual in the industry – outsourced the control of the scooters to a large extent. The company offers the platform, the e-scooters and some local contacts. The real work on the road, collecting, charging and distributing the scooters is done by subcontractors.
Voi says it uses digital tracking to check whether the scooters are parked correctly. Local Voi employees would instruct the external service providers and occasionally check them on the street. One is in close contact with the subcontractors. What doesn’t seem to go well with this: Vois Operations Manager for Bremen lives and works in Berlin, 400 kilometers away. From the point of view of lawyer Hiby, the company deliberately goes to the maximum distance: “Voi operates a purely virtual business from Sweden without any tangible liability substrates.”
The current permit for Voi’s 500 e-scooters in Bremen expires at the end of November. The city is negotiating the terms for the next year with Voi these days. What is certain so far is that the sidewalk width will be increased from 1.50 to 1.80 meters and that the company will have to react much more quickly to incorrectly parked e-scooters – probably within six instead of 24 hours. The Senate for the Interior said that Bremen will force the e-scooter companies to have fixed parking spaces.
Klaus Bopp, who is still struggling with the consequences of the accident, is still waiting for a personal apology. He wishes that the e-scooters could no longer stand and lie everywhere. “The project just wasn’t thought through to the end,” he says. Because he doesn’t want to go through the seconds of the fall again. “At that moment I just felt helpless and powerless because apparently nobody cares that the e-scooters are a traffic obstacle.”
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