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Attorney In Google Maps Lawsuit: It Was Dark; She Thought Google Was Leading Her To Sidewalk

I’ve spoken to the lead attorney in the case involving the woman who blames Google, in part, for directing her onto a highway where she was struck by a vehicle. Expressing amazement at the “firestorm” of attention the case has garnered, he explained some of the reasoning putting some of the blame on Google.

Our prior story, Woman Follows Google Maps “Walking” Directions, Gets Hit, Sues, covers how Lauren Rosenberg was struck by a vehicle as she walked between two locations in Park City, Utah. Using her BlackBerry phone, she’d used Google Maps and its “walking directions” feature to generate a route. Those directions sent her down “Deer Valley Drive,” an alternative name for Utah State Route 224. She was struck on that highway.

My key question for her attorney, Allen K. Young of firm Young, Kester & Petro, was the same that many reading about the case seem to have. Didn’t she know the road was unsafe for pedestrians, as she started walking on it?

“It was 6 in the morning. It was not a busy street [then]. She believed there was a sidewalk on the other side,” Young said.

In fact, Rosenberg never reached the other side. She left the end of Main Street to cross to the far side of Deer Valley Drive / State Route 224 and was struck while crossing. Here’s a view of the intersection from Google Maps:

“She was in an area that she’d never been to before. It was pitch black. There were no street lights. She relied on Google that she’d cross there and go down to a sidewalk,” Young said.

Ironically, had Rosenberg not been directed to cross, she could have continued along the route walking against traffic but separated from it on a dirt path, Young said. That’s part of the reason for the suit claiming Google to be partially at fault.

“Google had shots of the corner there. Had they looked at that, they would have realized,” Young said.

The shots Young is talking about are the “Street View” street-level photography such as shown above. Of course, Google doesn’t actually review the Street View photography to determine if a “walking” route that it plots is safe. Instead, to my knowledge, it uses an algorithm to make a best guess based on known walking paths and other data. As Google wrote when announcing the service in July 2008:

Walking directions are a new feature for Google, and while I’m pretty excited about it, there are some rough edges that compel us to release it in “beta.” Walking directions work well for short trips in urban areas, but we don’t always know if a street has a sidewalk, or if there’s actually a special pedestrian bridge for crossing a busy street. There are still a lot of pedestrian pathways we don’t know about, and they might save you some time if you find them. We’re working on collecting new data on pedestrian pathways and on more effective ways to solicit your feedback, so that we can steadily improve this feature and get you where you need to be as efficiently as possible….

…. Please be careful, and be particularly attentive in high traffic areas. Just like if you were driving, follow road signs and signals along your route, and use good judgment about streets that can’t be walked (there are many useful websites containing safety tips for pedestrians).

Still, Google does offer the service. And as I wrote on Friday, perhaps it would be better off not offering walking directions that can be so wrong, rather than generating embarrassing misdirections or worse, as has happened now, opening itself up to legal action.

“We look at it and say if they’re [Google] going to tell people where to go, they need to have some responsibility to warn them that that might not be the way to go,” Young said.

Google does currently warn that walking directions are in “beta” and to:

Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.

However, these are only for directions generated by those using its regular web site. Those using mobile versions of Google Maps, don’t appear to get such warnings. When I tested on Friday using my iPhone, I didn’t see a warning. Young also said his client got no warning on her BlackBerry when she was hit, on January 19, 2009. He also said that back then, Google did not offer warnings on its regular site.

I’m not sure when or why Google apparently belatedly added warnings to Google Maps. I’m still waiting to hear back from Google on that and some other questions.

Young said that in Utah, a jury can find against a plaintiff even if they are deemed only partially responsible. So perhaps a jury will find Google to be only 5% at fault in the accident, for example. If so, the Google would be responsible for that much of any claim, if Rosenberg should win, Young said. The case seeks at least $100,000 in damages

But still, isn’t there a role for common sense? The intersection itself had no crosswalk, as Young himself admits. Shouldn’t Rosenberg herself have some responsibility to judge where it was safe to walk or cross?

“I have told everyone that I think a jury will find some culpability on her part,” Young said — as well as some on the part of the driver the suit says hit her, and Google itself.

As for the case itself, he expressed amazement over the amount of interest and commentary it has generated.

“I’ve not spoken with Google. I merely filed the complaint. I had no idea the firestorm it would cause,” Young said.

Young is also set to give a statement to the press tomorrow at 9am Utah time at the Salt Lake City law offices of Snow, Christensen & Martineau. That law firm isn’t connected with the case. Young is simply making use of a conference room there.

Postscript: Heard back from Google PR now, which tells me via email:

We have had warning text since launch – July 08 on desktop, November 08 on mobile. Due to screen real estate, the mobile beta warning is a bit shorter, but it says “Walking directions (beta): Use caution” and usually shows up with the first step in your directions list.

Here’s an example of how the warning looks to BlackBerry users, from a screenshot Google sent to me:

This is why I missed spotting the directions when I checked my iPhone. I was expecting them to somehow appear next to the route itself, on the map. Instead, it appears as you click to see the text instructions of the route.

Google also told me they know of no other lawsuits of this type that have ever been served against them. As for comments on the case itself, I was

We haven’t been served yet, so we can’t comment on the specific merits, but in general we offer the beta warning as an extra indication that users should exercise caution and judgement – and we also, on desktop, have an additional note below directions that they are for planning purposes only (ie, we do not tell you to stop at red lights or not drive in a carpool-only lane).

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