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Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are facing new calls for change in the wake of a series of high-profile lawsuits, in which sexual assault and rape survivors accuse the corporations of failing to protect riders from dangerous sexual predators.
Dozens of civil plaintiffs, along with many public safety groups, have criticized the ride-hailing companies for employing “negligent” screening processes that allow drivers who pose a significant threat to get behind the wheel. Legal experts believe that the number of assault lawsuits filed against Uber and Lyft will only grow in 2020.
A number of law firms have begun to run television commercials that alert viewers who may have been assaulted in an Uber or Lyft of their legal rights. Most of these commercials, which are all produced by plaintiffs’ law firms, note that Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies have been sued in recent years over sexual assault allegations.
But the ads don’t go much further than that. You won’t learn why people are filing lawsuits, or what their legal arguments are. Most of the ads simply end by instructing you to call the sponsoring firm for more information.
On this page, you’ll find the full story on Uber and Lyft’s history with civil litigation. Over the last few years, multiple assault and rape survivors have filed their own private suits against the companies, accusing them of conducting insufficient background checks that often fail to catch dangerous sexual predators. Several of these lawsuits have already come to successful conclusions, with Uber in particular entering into undisclosed settlement agreements.
In their lawsuits, assault survivors argue that Uber, Lyft and any other company who hopes to facilitate ride-sharing has a duty to provide the service’s users with a reasonable degree of protection from harm.
One of the biggest responsibilities, plaintiffs continue, is to work toward reducing the risk that a dangerous sexual predator will slip through the cracks and gain access to vulnerable and unsuspecting victims. Neither Uber nor Lyft have done enough to protect customers, survivors claim.
Instead of upholding their obligation to public safety, plaintiffs allege, the ride-sharing companies have settled on extremely lax background check systems that allow numerous predators to start driving. In fact, both companies have opposed the efforts of well-meaning government regulators, many of whom want to impose stricter safety requirements.
Uber and Lyft says it’s not their job to police the actions, however horrific, of their drivers. In court documents filed in numerous legal cases, defense attorneys for the two companies argue that their drivers should be considered independent contractors, not true employees, which would severely limit their liability in sexual assault lawsuits.
Thankfully, several courts haven’t bought that argument. In 2016, a federal judge in California allowed one sexual assault lawsuit against Uber to proceed, holding that, while the company’s drivers may be independent contractors, it shouldn’t matter, according to Insurance Journal. “Assaults of this nature are exactly why customers would expect taxi companies to perform background checks for their drivers,” wrote US District Judge Susan Illston, who delivered the opinion on May 4, 2016.
The case was eventually settled in an undisclosed agreement. The impact of Judge Illston’s decision, however, went far beyond the case in which it was issued. In allowing Uber to be held accountable in court, the federal judge threw more weight behind an argument that many government regulators and Uber riders have been making for years: the company’s background check screening process is woefully insufficient.
And, while you might expect Lyft’s passenger protection requirements to be a little friendlier, you’d be wrong. Both companies, Uber and Lyft, continue to refuse common-sense protection measures, including a fingerprint-based background check system that would screen out potential drivers using a national criminal database.
In May 2016, the two companies even pulled out of Austin, Texas after the voters in that city supported a public referendum that would have forced them to use stricter background checks. Uber and Lyft only returned to Austin in 2017, Curbed reports, when the Texas State legislature (encouraged by $5.5 million in lobbying services funded by Uber and Lyft) passed its own law to regulate ride-hailing apps state-wide.
Critics say there’s no lengths to which the companies won’t go in an effort to defend their drivers from stringent screening.
Even so, a number of sexual assault survivors have made significant progress through the civil court system.
The most notable case to date comes from New Delhi, India, where, in 2014, a woman accused her Uber driver of raping her and filed suit against Uber. Indian police determined that Uber had failed to verify the offender’s address and background using the country’s driver registration system.
The assault survivor struck back, leveling two serious allegations against the company. The woman, who is named as Jane Doe in court records, argued that Uber had been negligent in approving the driver to use its system, failing to perform a thorough and proper background check. But she also accused Uber of fraud because, at the time, the company had been advertising itself as “the safest ride on the road,” including to young women who have been drinking.
Uber moved quickly to quash the suit, entering into an undisclosed settlement agreement with the plaintiff about 8 months after it was filed. Things got even stranger two years later, when the survivor found herself back in court to file a second lawsuit against Uber. This time, the woman was accusing the company of privacy invasion and defamation, allegations that arose out of Uber’s apparent attempt to smear her reputation.
As the woman wrote in her new complaint, one of Uber’s top executives had inappropriately obtained her personal medical records, then shared them with the company’s then-CEO, Travis Kalanick.
The executive, Eric Alexander, was soon fired after the news broke. And the rapist, Shiv Kumar Yadav, is now serving a life sentence in an Indian jail. But the assault survivor continued to press her case, arguing that Uber had attempted to ruin her credibility by floating a defamatory rumor that she was working for Ola, the company’s main competitor in India. In December 2017, Uber agreed to settle the woman’s second case for an undisclosed amount, CNN Tech reports.
Major legal changes had also been brewing in America, where, in 2014, government officials from San Francisco and Los Angeles filed suit against Uber for falsely claiming that its driver screening program was stricter than the one used by California’s taxi companies. That marketing campaign, city prosecutors argued, gave riders a “false sense of security.”
Taxi drivers in California are subjected to fingerprint-based background checks; Uber drivers are not. And San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón thought he had evidence to prove that Uber’s screening process was insufficient. In a news conference held in August 2015, Gascón revealed that his team had identified at least 25 convicted criminal offenders who were nonetheless allowed to drive for Uber in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including sex offenders, a murderer and kidnappers.
Eventually, Uber settled the suit for up $25 million – $10 million immediately and an extra $15 million if the company failed to meet the regulator’s requirements within 2 years.
Two similar class actions, both of which concluded in February 2016, resulted in a $28.5 million settlement for riders who accused Uber of misrepresenting driver safety. In line with the settlement’s terms, Uber was forced to change its “safe ride fee” to a “booking fee,” SF Gate writes.
Despite the efforts of regulators and advocates, Uber and Lyft continue to use the same background screening process, one without fingerprinting. It’s tragic, but unsurprising, that sexual assault and rape reports continue to emerge.
At the time of this writing, 18 assault survivors have come forward to report sexual assault, molestation and rapes allegedly committed by Uber drivers in the first four months of 2018, according to the nonprofit watchdog Who’s Driving You?
These horrific crimes must stop and, while criminal prosecutors can go after the individual offenders who commit sexual crimes, they’re powerless when it comes to holding Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies accountable. That’s why the civil justice system can be such a powerful option for assault and rape survivors.
In filing a private lawsuit, victims and their loved ones don’t just pursue financial compensation for themselves, though financial remuneration in these cases is certainly warranted. More than money, civil litigation forces Uber and Lyft to answer for their actions, which many critics say demonstrates a callous disregard for public safety.
It could also change things for riders in the future, protecting other innocent men and women from the dangers that unsuitable drivers pose.
Want to learn more about your legal rights and options? Contact us. We will connect you with experienced personal injury attorneys today for a free consultation. If you or a loved one were assaulted by an Uber or Lyft driver, you may be eligible to pursue financial compensation and accountability by filing a civil lawsuit.
In a free, confidential consultation, you can find more information on case eligibility – all at no charge and no obligation. Even better, our referral lawyers always offer their legal services on a contingency-fee basis, so you never owe them anything until they secure compensation in your case.