When a person hops into an Uber, how much responsibility does the company have to keep them safe from sexual assault? That’s what courts are wrestling with as ride sharing becomes more popular.
Under the common carrier doctrine, transportation companies are responsible for the safe passage of their riders. But Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft argue the doctrine doesn’t apply to them because they don’t provide transportation, they just use technology to broker rides. Several states have passed laws siding with them, which makes it harder for injured people to be compensated, said Will Ourand, an attorney with Newsome Melton.
Although TNCs claim assaults are rare, it’s hard to know exactly since many attacks go unreported and no central database collects information about all attacks on ride-sharing passengers. Uber reported in December 2019 that there were 3,045 reports of sexual assault in 2018.
Uber recently relaxed its arbitration provisions for sexual assault cases, which is a step in the right direction as the arbitration process is stacked against consumers and in favor of businesses.
Recent court cases have focused on various plaintiff strategies:
- Some cases argue that TNCs should fall under the common carrier doctrine because they function much like traditional transportation companies in what they provide, even if they use technology to do it.
- Others claim negligence of various types on the part of the company. In Jane Doe v. Uber Technologies, Inc., for instance, the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California refused to dismiss the case of a woman who was allegedly raped after getting in a car with a former driver who still used his Uber decal. The plaintiff argued Uber was negligent in failing to properly screen drivers and keep control of decals (which bear the company’s logo and can instill a false sense of safety).
- Plaintiffs also have argued that companies like Uber remade the transportation industry and convinced women (and men) to throw off social norms of avoiding strangers and get into vehicles with people they don’t know based on the company’s assurance of safety.
- A lawsuit against Lyft alleging 14 different cases of sexual assault includes complaints of concealment of risk, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional misrepresentation, product liability and more. The suit claims Lyft concealed information about the assaults from the public and police and that they allowed drivers to keep working even after they were accused of assault.
- Some plaintiffs have also stated claims for TNCs failing to use reasonable measures to monitor their drivers and prevent assaults. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently allowed this type of negligence claim to move forward in Murray v. Uber Technologies, Inc. The Murray plaintiff alleged she was raped during her Uber ride, and that Uber failed to implement safety measures that would have alerted authorities of erratic driver conduct. The Court found that these allegations constituted a valid legal claim.
- Some cases argue the companies were negligent in hiring, training and supervising, such as missing red flags in the driver’s background.
Ourand said the ride-sharing companies could do a much better job of overseeing drivers. If they can derive algorithms to monitor financial performance, they can also have their technology flag erratic behavior, like a driver who pulls over on the side of an unlit street in the middle of a ride. They also should do much more to vet drivers and monitor them, said Ourand, who has lobbied against exempting TNCs from the common carrier doctrine because being liable is a good incentive for companies to keep their passengers safe.
“Uber created this new business model and makes money out of it,” Ourand said. “If someone is raped, who is going to bear the financial ramifications, including the cost of medical care and treatment, counseling, and lost wages and earning capacity—the young girl who paid Uber for the ride, or Uber?”
If you have questions about this topic or need assistance filing a sexual assault claim involving a ride sharing company, Newsome Melton can help. Contact us at 1-888-380-2809.