How Amazon hooked America on fast delivery while avoiding responsibility for crashes
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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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.
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.”
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.”
On Friday, Amazon spokeswoman Rena Lunak sent ProPublica an additional written statement. “We require that all delivery service partners maintain comprehensive insurance, including auto liability so if in the rare case an accident does occur, there is coverage for all involved,” she wrote.
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.
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.”
In the runup to Christmas 2013, Amazon had a lot to celebrate. That December, in a “60 Minutes” interview, its chief executive, Jeff Bezos, unveiled drones he said eventually would ferry customers their packages 30 minutes after they placed their orders.
“I know this looks like science fiction,” Bezos said as he showed Charlie Rose, the CBS correspondent, a video of a drone picking up a package from a conveyor belt and flying it to a doorstep. “It’s not.”
“Wow!” Rose exclaimed.
Amazon Prime, the loyalty program that had made two-day shipping standard almost a decade earlier, surged in popularity. More than a million customers signed up for Prime memberships in just the third week of December 2013. Sales hit a record high.
But UPS couldn’t keep up. Irate customers spent the holidays railing about missed gifts and disappointed children.
It was clear that if Amazon wanted to grow, it needed something other than dreams of drones.
The next spring, Amazon was testing contract couriers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, according to The Wall Street Journal. And in 2015, Amazon introduced Flex, an app that allows people to sign up for delivery shifts using their own vehicles. (Amazon considers Flex drivers independent contractors, too.)
Amazon won’t say what percentage of packages its contractors deliver, but industry analysts say the share is growing fast. Researchers at Cowen estimate that in 2015, UPS and the United States Postal Service handled 91% of Amazon’s domestic deliveries, while contractors and DHL had less than 3%. Amazon’s network of contractors will handle 23% of its American deliveries this year, Cowen estimates, and 43% by 2024.
Analysts and companies in the logistics industry think Amazon eventually will become a formidable competitor to UPS and to FedEx, which until recently also had a slice of Amazon’s business. Acknowledging the threat, FedEx severed its domestic shipping ties with Amazon last month.
It wasn’t so long ago that most consumers bought their goods at brick-and-mortar stores. Then Bezos figured out a way to make shopping effortless and deliveries fast. When the store travels to the customer, there’s no need to stock up all at once. A steady stream of purchases means many delivery trips.
Amazon is only getting faster in delivering orders, and its competitors are racing to catch up. Last April, after reporting a record $3.6 billion quarterly profit, Amazon’s chief financial officer, Brian Olsavsky, told Wall Street analysts that the company was investing $800 million to make free overnight delivery the default for Prime members in the United States.
The next day, Walmart teased on Twitter: “One-day free shipping … without a membership fee. Now THAT would be groundbreaking. Stay tuned.” Walmart began offering free overnight delivery of 220,000 popular items in a few American cities, with a goal of expanding to 40 major metropolitan areas.
The one-upmanship has continued. In June, Amazon said Prime members were eligible for free one-day shipping on 10 million products.
Analysts at Cowen estimate that Amazon shipped 2.3 billion packages last year in the United States. The final leg of that journey, from warehouse to doorstep, has always been the most expensive for online retailers.
Contractors are critical to keeping the cost down. Olsavsky told analysts in January that Amazon’s contractors could make deliveries for the same price as or less than the legacy carriers. And the contractor network is nimbler, allowing Amazon to add or subtract drivers quickly.
Today, Amazon relies on tiers of contractors, ranging from publicly traded logistics businesses to tiny companies providing just a handful of drivers, to the Flex drivers. And during some busy periods, Amazon hires temporary employees as drivers.
Amazon isn’t unique in its outsourcing. Uber and the food startup DoorDash, for example, rely on delivery contractors, as do many publishers, including The New York Times.
The law governing independent contractors varies by state, but it all boils down to control: Does Amazon control enough aspects of the drivers’ jobs to make it responsible for their actions?
The question of where companies draw the line is a contentious one that has spurred litigation and legislation. FedEx has settled lawsuits in recent years brought by drivers who argued that they functioned as employees, not independent contractors. Last week, Uber and Lyft announced that they would spend $60 million to contest a proposed California law that would force them to treat their contract drivers as employees.
In lawsuits, people injured in crashes and drivers in wage disputes have argued that Amazon retains so much control that it effectively is the drivers’ employer.
To counter that argument, Amazon says the contractors hire and fire their own drivers. Yet work orders and the court testimony of an Amazon manager reveal that Amazon can demand that contractors bar particular drivers from its delivery force. It directs and tracks drivers’ routes. And Amazon is the sole client for many contractors.
The leverage Amazon holds over its delivery contractors was at the heart of bankruptcy proceedings for one such company, Tenet Concepts, last year in Fort Worth, Texas. Tenet formed in 2015 just to serve Amazon. The retailer paid a flat rate for each of Tenet’s delivery routes, which the contractor used to pay 300 employees, records show.
Then some drivers sued, alleging that Tenet had failed to pay them fairly. The drivers also sued Amazon, saying the online retailer was also their employer and that it, too, owed them money.
Tenet filed for bankruptcy protection, saying it couldn’t afford the anticipated $800,000 in legal costs to defend itself and, as required under its contract, Amazon. The bankruptcy judge, Russell Nelms, questioned why Tenet should have to pay for the defense of Amazon, when the critical issue was whether Amazon was the de facto employer.
Regardless of any indemnification provision, the judge said, “I think that’s an issue that Amazon on its own has to step up and defend, doesn’t it?”
“Well, Your Honor, Amazon doesn’t think that,” Laurie Rea, Tenet’s lawyer, responded. Amazon’s position, she said, was that Tenet had to pay defense costs and claims.
She added: “Amazon could cut them off right now, and that would be the end of the business and 300-plus people won’t have jobs. Because Amazon does have the upper hand.”
Ultimately, the court allowed Tenet’s bankruptcy to go forward, with the indemnity agreement in place. When Tenet crafted a plan to emerge from bankruptcy, it set up a monthly schedule to pay Amazon, now both a client and a creditor.
Rene Romero had worked as a truck driver in Honduras for decades, but had been delivering Amazon packages for only about two months before the crash that killed Gabrielle Kennedy, he said.
Romero’s job was to pick up pallets of packages at an Amazon warehouse south of Boston and deliver them to post offices around New England. He was working for DSD Vanomos, a business with just two trucks. It was a subcontractor for XPO Logistics, a large transportation company that handled “postal injection” deliveries for Amazon.
He would get to the warehouse at about midnight, he said, and wait to be assigned a route. His deadline for dropping off the packages was 6 a.m., he said, and the post offices would add them to mail routes.
On Jan. 10, Romero got a late start because there were other drivers ahead of him, he recalled in the interview. XPO said that according to its records, by 6 a.m. Romero had made it to two of the five post offices on his list. Romero said he was running late by the time he drove through Waterboro, Maine. On past trips, he said, he had been pressured by dispatchers.
“They’re calling you and saying: ‘Hey, did you get there yet? When are you going to get there?’” said Romero, 54.
It’s not clear whether those dispatchers worked for XPO or Amazon. XPO said it had a “joint dispatch” arrangement with Amazon, which declined to comment.
Still, he said, he didn’t think he had been speeding on the stretch of the town’s Main Street where Kennedy’s Jeep was stopped in front of him, waiting at an intersection to make a turn. He recalled the speed limit as 55 miles an hour — it’s actually 35 — but said he wasn’t going that fast because it was dark and foggy. He hit his brakes when he was about 10 feet away from the Jeep, he remembered, but couldn’t stop in time.
“Look,” he said, “the truth is I didn’t see the vehicle in front of me.”
He was charged with aggravated driving to endanger, a felony, and jailed.
Romero said he called the owner of DSD Vanomos, Denis Rolando Vasquez, to ask for help, only to be told that XPO had terminated its contract with DSD the day of the crash.
“He said, ‘You’re going to have to figure that out yourself,’” Romero recalled Vasquez saying about the criminal case.
In an interview, Vasquez said the driver hadn’t asked for help getting out of jail. Vasquez said XPO had been an important customer and that, without that work, his two-truck company couldn’t stay in business.
“The accident was something very terrible for all of us — for Rene and his family, and for me and my family, and especially for the child’s family,” Vasquez said. “Everybody lost here.”
XPO declined to comment when asked if it had indemnified Amazon.
An XPO spokesman, Bob Josephson, disputed Romero’s description of his work routine and the events leading up to the crash. Josephson said the driver had arrived at the Amazon warehouse at 1:11 a.m. and started his route at 1:50 a.m. — 10 minutes early. The deadline for dropping off his pallets of packages, Josephson said, had been 8 a.m., not 6.
When asked if XPO conveyed those expectations to Romero in Spanish, the language he spoke, Josephson responded that the instructions were in the “same format as previous days.” He added that just the week before, Romero had completed a delivery at one of the same Maine post offices at 7:26 a.m.
Romero couldn’t afford a lawyer. Delivering Amazon packages paid about $600 a week, and he had only $100 in the bank, according to court records. He qualified for a public defender. He spent seven days in jail before his daughter raised the money to bail him out.
In an interview in May, Romero said he hadn’t heard from his former boss or anyone from Amazon. “They just abandoned me,” he said.
This summer, the prosecutor’s office dropped the felony charge and began pursuing a civil offense — motor vehicle violation resulting in death — punishable with a fine and a suspension of driving privileges. The office did not respond to an inquiry about why it had dropped the felony charge.
In assembling its network of contractors, Amazon has fundamentally altered the career expectations and training of delivery drivers, turning what once was a steady union job with benefits into a transitory job.
“Logistics experience not required,” says an ad on an Amazon website, enticing aspiring entrepreneurs to start their own delivery contracting businesses with Amazon’s help. But the notion that anyone can do this kind of work belies the fact that being a delivery driver is among the deadlier jobs in America, according to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
UPS trains its drivers in multimillion-dollar facilities where they are put through virtual-reality and obstacle-course hazards to learn to avoid them.
Flex drivers say Amazon trains them primarily through instructional videos they watch on their phones. When printed, Amazon’s delivery driver onboarding course from late 2017 is 39 pages, with less than half of one page devoted to defensive driving. One of the fatalities involving Amazon drivers was a 70-year-old Kansas grandfather on a Flex shift during the 2017 holiday rush.
In five of the 10 fatal crashes, drivers were making left turns. Studies have shown that left turns are more dangerous than right turns: They involve crossing oncoming traffic, and the vehicle pillar between the windshield and the side window can obstruct a driver’s view of pedestrians in crosswalks on the left. UPS says the algorithm that powers turn-by-turn directions for its drivers programs out most left turns.
Amazon has started building that safety feature into the routes of some of its delivery drivers but not others. Amazon contractors use two types of smartphone devices to scan packages: One includes left turns in its directions; the other avoids them, according to several drivers and a contractor who had to buy newer devices. Amazon declined to answer questions about the inconsistency.
While many career mail carriers and UPS drivers follow familiar routes every day, contract drivers for Amazon are often in unfamiliar territory, reliant on Amazon’s directions.
Nicolya Dorton, a former driver for a contractor called Scoobeez, said she often didn’t know where she was going when she delivered Amazon packages from a warehouse in San Leandro, California. Her shift was supposed to end at 6 p.m., she said, but she sometimes drove until 10 p.m. to finish deliveries. “You have to come back with an empty truck,” she said.
She recalled panicking one night in October 2016 when she saw a car coming toward her as she drove up what she thought was a one-way Oakland overpass (the street ran in both directions). She made a sudden U-turn and crashed, leading to a lawsuit filed by an injured driver, records show.
“I thought I was dead,” said Dorton, who stopped delivering for Scoobeez that night. “I think I had five or six packages left. I was way over time and trying to get it done and wound up getting into an accident.”
Other drivers echoed that feeling of pressure. Jeffrey Lines, a Texas driver who sued Tenet Concepts claiming the company had shorted his wages, testified in the bankruptcy case that when he’d delivered Amazon Prime Now packages — which he said had to arrive within an hour or two of the order — he couldn’t stop even to use a restroom.
“You can’t get a break,” said Lines, who stopped working for Tenet in January 2016, and whose wage claim was ultimately rejected. “Because if you take a break, you delay the orders, we get fired.”
Get hit by a UPS driver or a mail truck, and it’s obvious who the driver’s employer is.
But many Amazon contractors use plain white vans or rented box trucks that have no visible connection to the e-commerce giant, and Flex drivers sign up for shifts driving their own vehicles. Dorton drove a white Enterprise cargo van; Lines, his own car.
Last September Amazon announced it was arranging for contractors to lease 20,000 cargo vans emblazoned with its logo. At the same time, the company has been fighting to keep other parts of its delivery force anonymous.
When the planning board of the Boston suburb Braintree passed zoning rules requiring that delivery vehicles serving a new Amazon warehouse there be labeled as part of the company’s delivery network, Amazon sued, saying the signage demands were unreasonable.
The lack of labeling can make it difficult for people outside Amazon to know the scope of the harm attributable to collisions, or for those injured to hold Amazon accountable. The driver hurt by Dorton’s sudden U-turn sued only Dorton, Enterprise and Scoobeez. Amazon’s role wasn’t immediately apparent.
Amazon has been a named defendant in 45 lawsuits related to the crashes ProPublica examined. In some instances, plaintiffs or judges ultimately dropped Amazon from the suits; other cases led to confidential settlements, and it is unclear whether the payouts came from Amazon or its contractors. Still other claims are in the early stages. Testimony in one case that went to trial in Chicago recently underscored the challenges of taking on one of the world’s most powerful companies.
When Raul Salinas, 77, was struck in a hit-and-run two years ago by an unlabeled white cargo van, his son suspected right away that the driver was tied to Amazon. Salinas, a pedestrian, was hit in the crosswalk of a street leading to the company’s Chicago warehouse.
The family struggled to get any information about who was behind the wheel, even after filing a negligence lawsuit against the company. The accident left Salinas, a retired trailer repairman, with broken ribs and a fractured arm and knee, and requiring surgery to reconstruct his shoulder. Hospitalized for more than a month, he now walks with a cane and has limited function in the injured arm.
Police surveillance video shows a white van hitting Salinas on the evening of Dec. 8, 2017, then driving around his body and running a stop sign before fleeing. The footage is too blurry to make out the license plate, but a witness told the police he saw an Amazon van. Another witness who testified at the trial last week said the driver was wearing a reflective vest, which many Amazon contractors’ drivers wear.
After paramedics took Salinas to the hospital, his son Stephen and an acquaintance went to the warehouse. Workers there denied any knowledge of the accident and called the police when Stephen Salinas slipped inside the warehouse and started yelling at the shift manager.
According to company records submitted in the court case, the shift manager, Kevin Barbosa, reported to Amazon’s Global Security Command Center that an outsider had entered the warehouse and said “in an aggressive manner” that his father had been hit by an Amazon van. Barbosa told Amazon security officials that the street where the accident occurred was a popular corridor for drivers going to and from the warehouse and that their white delivery vans bore no Amazon logos, the records show.
In response to a question from Salinas’ lawyer, Barbosa said he had wanted to investigate but was told not to by an Amazon supervisor. “I was pretty frustrated,” Barbosa added.
Amazon’s lead investigator, Dusko Tadic, did not go to the warehouse, interview drivers or inspect vans for damage that night, according to his testimony.
That weekend Tadic and another manager reviewed warehouse surveillance video that had captured every vehicle entering and exiting the night of the accident. Tadic said they saw white vans, but none with marks indicating an accident. He took notes, he said, but later threw out his notebook.
The cameras record in a loop, so about every nine days footage is recorded over — unless someone saves it. Tadic preserved the video of Stephen Salinas’ unauthorized entry but not the footage of the vans, according to court records.
He reviewed Amazon’s routing software but did not identify any vans passing through the intersection at the time of the crash.
Amazon’s lawyers argued that many companies use white vans and that there was no admissible evidence that the driver who struck Salinas had been delivering Amazon packages.
On Tuesday, Judge Joan E. Powell of the Cook County Circuit Court ruled in Amazon’s favor, saying that without knowing the driver’s identity and whether the truck was connected to Amazon, there was “too much uncertainty” in the case to send it to the jury.
Before the morning of Jan. 10, Ellen Kennedy, Gabrielle’s mother, felt like she finally had everything she ever wanted.
Her marriage had broken up not long after Gabrielle was born, but she and her ex-husband, Chad Kennedy, had ironed out a routine. She had primary custody. He had shared-parenting rights two days a week. Gabrielle’s grandmothers pitched in to help.
“I literally thought that I was never happier because I had my baby, and I was making it as a single mom,” Kennedy recalled in an interview.
After the crash, she said, she sat on the couch in her trailer watching videos of Gabrielle, crying and drinking.
“I just pushed everybody away,” she recalled.
Her car destroyed, she had no way to get to her job. She fell behind on her bills and lost her trailer home.
On what would have been Gabrielle’s first birthday, Kennedy wrote her a letter and posted it on Facebook. “Not a day, hour, minute or second goes by that I don’t think of you and wish you were here. I wonder how big you’d be now,” she wrote. “I long to see you crawling around and playing with your toys and laughing at the dogs.”
The message went on: “It’s not FAIR but I want you to know I love you so, so much and I wait for the day when I can see you again. ’Til that time, baby, watch over me. I need you. Love, your mama down here.”
Her ex-husband could not bear to see photos or videos of his daughter. He grew depressed and drank heavily, he said. In March, he spent eight days in the hospital being treated for liver problems. Doctors warned his mother, Judy, that he might not survive.
But he pulled through. “Gabrielle wouldn’t want me to die,” he said.
Both he and his ex-wife said they were sober now. He sleeps in a recliner in his parents’ living room. His mother sleeps on the couch so she can watch him and talk him through darker moments.
Ellen and Chad Kennedy have each retained a personal-injury lawyer, but neither has filed suit against the driver, the two contracting companies or Amazon.
Chad Kennedy and his father, Brian, were sitting on the porch one evening last May when the conversation turned to Amazon’s pursuit of speed — and customers’ demand for it.
“So what if the packages take three days instead of two?” Brian Kennedy said. “You know, it ain’t that big a deal to me. But maybe some people, if they don’t get it in two days, they raise Cain.”
His son agreed. “These big powerhouse companies like Amazon should realize what the impact is when they’re speeding up deliveries,” Chad Kennedy said. They should see “the tragic families that have lost somebody or have gotten hurt from somebody’s negligence,” he said, “just because they want a package a day before another service.”