In the past few years, thousands of riders and drivers of Uber and Lyft have fallen victim to harassment, unwanted physical contact, indecent exposure, sexual assault, and rape. According to the New York Times, Uber recorded 2,936 sexual assaults in 2017, and that number grew to exceed 3,000 in 2018. The reported sexual assaults included allegations ranging from unwanted kissing to nonconsensual touching of someone’s genitals, to attempted rape, and rape. Uber also reported that 92 percent of the victims were passengers, as opposed to drivers or third parties.
While Lyft similarly pledged in 2018 to release reports of sexual assaults involving its ridesharing platform, nearly three years has passed, and no information has been provided.
Sexual Assaults in Uber and Lyft
Ridesharing companies compete with taxi cabs in the transportation industry, but sexual assaults occur more frequently in the ridesharing. Why?
- Independent Drivers – Rideshare drivers are deemed independent contractors, rather than employees. Because of this classification, Uber and Lyft are not required to follow the same regulations and licensing requirements that typically apply to businesses such as taxicab services. Additionally, under this approach, companies like Uber and Lyft claim they cannot be held responsible for the supervision, or lack thereof, of their drivers.
Until recently, most ridesharing companies only performed background checks on drivers before hiring them. No action was taken to monitor drivers after hiring. Now, companies like Uber and Lyft utilize automated technology that regularly screens driving records and criminal history.
- Environmental Circumstances – Many patrons, especially college students, use ridesharing companies to get home safely after a night of drinking, which of course can affect judgement, inhibitions, and situational awareness. Unfortunately, many victims of sexual assault are taken advantage of during this state of inebriation, when they are unable to protect themselves at the time of the assault.
Measures You Can Take to Protect Yourself
We are not saying you should never take an Uber or Lyft again. However, we are saying if you do use them, consider taking these safety measures.
- Wait inside a safe location until your driver arrives.
- Make sure your driver’s information matches what the app shows you. Check that the following pieces of information match what is in your ridesharing app: License plate number, make and model of vehicle, driver’s photo, and name.
- Ask the driver to confirm your name before getting into the vehicle.
- Ride in the back seat.
- Share your trip with your friends and family so they can track your progress along the route.
Criminal and Civil Justice
If you or a loved one has been assaulted while using a ridesharing service, you may consider taking legal action. It is important to understand the difference between a criminal and civil liability case within the justice system.
In this context, the criminal case is handled by a prosecuting attorney and is brought against the individual perpetrator who is alleged to commit the sexual assault. While some restitution or financial compensation may be awarded to the victim, criminal courts are a poor avenue through which to pursue it. This is because the purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect society as a whole, rather than advocate for individuals’ rights.
For that reason, the civil justice system may be the best avenue for victims to hold the perpetrator, and the ridesharing company who employed them, responsible for your damages. However, there are certain legal complexities that make pursuit of civil claims arising from sexual assault in ridesharing very difficult.
First, while insurance policies generally cover claims against an Uber or Lyft driver who was negligent in causing a collision, the same cannot be said to be true for claims of sexual assault. Most insurance policies have “exclusions” that negate any obligation by the insurance carrier to pay for losses arising from intentional or sexual acts.
Second, it remains uncertain whether companies like Uber and Lyft are responsible for the acts of its drivers under traditional legal principles of respondent superior, which is generally understood to mean “let the master answer”. Under respondent superior, an employer may be held liable for the acts of its employees where the conduct was committed within the course and scope of the employment. Most rideshare companies designate their drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. Under this approach, companies like Uber and Lyft are shielded from legal responsibility based on the acts of the drivers it employs.
In 2020, the U.K. Supreme Court addressed the question of employment status concerning employment benefits for Uber and Lyft drivers, which includes things like health insurance, minimum wage, workers compensation insurance, sick and vacation leave, and safety regulations. In that decision, the high court ruled that drivers are employees, not independent contractors.
While rideshare drivers in California experienced a similar victory in 2020, it was quickly eviscerated when Proposition 22 was passed. Given the uncertainty of ongoing court proceedings and pop-up legislation, it remains unclear what legal recourse is available to sexual assault victims.
Even where the employer-employee relationship is found not to exist, however, it remains viable that ride share companies are responsible for notice-based claims, such as negligent hiring, retention, or supervision. In order to prevail under such theories, the victim must show that prior to the assault, the rideshare company knew, or should have known, that the driver had a propensity to commit sexual violence or behave in sexually inappropriate behavior.
Our sexual assault attorneys at Monsees & Mayer, P.C. have been trauma trained. And while we recognize that no dollar figure can truly account for the life-long trauma caused by sexual violence, it is the sole remedy authorized by our country’s civil justice system. We have seen first-hand how money has changed victims lives because it not only provides a sense of justice, but also provides access to counseling and therapy that they would not have been able to afford before.
We are here to answer any questions you may have. Contact us today.