This story was copublished with ProPublica.
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 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 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 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. 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.”
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 logo. The truck involved in Gabrielle Kennedy’s death, for example, was marked only “Penske Truck Rental.”
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 also recently published an article 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.
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. 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 Ellen Kennedy’s Jeep was stopped in front of him, waiting at an intersection to make a turn. He recalled the speed limit as 55 mph — 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.
Vasquez said the driver hadn’t asked for help getting out of jail. Vasquez said that 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”