Ridesharing companies such as Lyft and Uber have quickly become a part of daily life. Many riders use these services to get around town, or as a safe ride home after a night on the town. Unfortunately, the reality is that these companies have been lacking in addressing systematic passenger safety concerns. Stories of women being sexually assaulted by their drivers seem to make the news on a regular basis, and these experiences can have a long term impact on the victims. A recent article published by The National Law Review, reported on this lack of oversight, and continued disregard for rider safety, by detailing a wave of lawsuits in California that are working to address responsibility of these companies when a passenger is assaulted by one of their drivers.
In early January 2020, California Superior Court Judge Hon. Kenneth Freeman granted a petition to consolidate multiple Lyft sexual assault cases in California. Judge Freeman recommended the Superior Court of California San Francisco County as the appropriate venue for the “complex” coordinated matters to be heard.
The lawsuits against Lyft claim that the plaintiffs were sexually assaulted by sexual predators driving for Lyft. These assaults occurred after Lyft was informed and aware that the company was experiencing ongoing, sexual assaults by its drivers. The complaints state that Lyft failed to respond to the sexual assaults, and could have implemented implementing adequate driver hiring or monitoring systems and procedures to better protect their riders. In failing to respond to an identified, systemic issue of sexual assault, Lyft continued to put more riders at risk.
In September of 2019, a number of Lyft plaintiffs filed a motion to coordinate the cases, as most of the cases included in the ruling had been filed in San Francisco Superior Court. The court agreed with the Lyft plaintiffs. Lyft’s corporate headquarters are in San Francisco, as are the majority of corporate witnesses and documents. The court added that since the San Francisco Superior Court uses e-filing, this detail could potentially save the parties involved significant costs. Only cases that are “complex” as defined by California’s Judicial Council standards may be coordinated.
Bruce Cutter of Cutter Law is co-counsel for the Lyft sexual assault plaintiffs. Mr. Cutter argued that there are likely to be thousands of documents, studies, e-mails, and memoranda that are relevant to the claims and defenses in this case and discovery will inevitably require a complex ESI (Electronically Stored Information) order. Accordingly, a court like San Francisco Superior Court is well-equipped to handle such issues, including staying discovery, staying portions of the case, obtaining stipulations that apply to the entire coordinated case, and selecting bellwether plaintiffs.
Many of the underlying cases in the consolidation action allege vicarious liability or the liability of Lyft for the torts or wrongful actions of their drivers whether or not Lyft classifies them as an employee or independent contractor. It is no wonder then that Lyft, Uber, and Doordash are actively fighting California Assembly Bill 5 Pledging over $90 Million To Fund Voter Initiative To Overturn AB-5 which went into effect January 1, 2020. AB-5 has a profound effect on the way these companies conduct their business, as it alters the legal standard applied in evaluating whether a worker is classified as an employee or an independent contractor.
Not surprisingly, on December 31, 2019, Uber and Postmates filed a legal challenge in Federal Court alleging AB-5 violates individuals’ constitutional rights. These companies are seeking declaratory and injunctive remedies. They claim the law unfairly discriminates against technology platforms and the people who make a living through their services.
In stark contrast to Uber, Lyft has been slow to adapt new features in their app to offer riders added protections. Lyft has also been accused of stalling and slowing down discovery. By coordinated proceedings, the plaintiffs’ attorneys may be able to combat Lyft’s delays. It may also be beneficial to have one judge see how Lyft has conducted itself in discovery.
According to Mr. Cutter, he is aware of five more related sexual assault cases that have been filed in the time since the original petition was filed. “There are definitely victims who have not yet come forward,” said Mr. Cutter.
Represent by the law firm Williams & Connolly, Lyft argued that the consolidation of Lyft Sexual assault cases “would make in San Francisco Superior Court a national clearinghouse for claims against San Francisco-based companies.” Lyft continued to fight consolidation, stating, “all claims against a California based-company – wherever the underlying incidents arise, and however much the disputed facts occurred elsewhere and other states’ laws govern the contested legal issues – could be brought in California courts and coordinated.” The two main objections Lyft had to consolidation are, “the allegations of misconduct are not the same and that the majority of the cases did not occur in California.”
Judge Freeman did not agree with Lyft, and focused instead on the actions or inactions as an organization taken by the company to protect rider’s safety. “To the contrary, the predominating legal and factual issues will examine Lyft’s liability for allegedly failing to institute a system to have prevented the assaults in these cases and potential future assaults.” Judge Freeman said. “The court agrees with plaintiffs that this is not a case against the drivers; it is fundamentally a case against Lyft.”
According to Judge Freeman, the coordination of the suits would make the most efficient use of court resources and avoid duplicative testimony. He further noted in giving his ruling that there is a risk of duplicative and inconsistent rulings if the cases were not coordinated. This would create confusion and would hinder the Court of Appeal’s ability to hear challenges to inconsistent rulings, orders, and judgments. Doing so would inevitably cause significant delays.
“This is an important ruling for victims as it means the claims will be heard in a single court in California,” plaintiff’s co-counsel Brooks Cutter said. “Lyft opposed our motion and wanted to force victims to undergo litigation in separate courts across the country. As a California company, it is appropriate for these Lyft claims to be heard in California.”
The Lyft sexual assault and rape claims each allege that the company did not adequately address the issue of sexual misconduct committed by sexual predators who drove for the ride-sharing company. They go on to allege that Lyft owed that duty to its riders, who believed it offered a safe form of transportation. “The occurrence of sexual assault in the vast majority of these lawsuits is undisputed. The focus of these lawsuits is Lyft’s accountability for the assaults, which plaintiffs contend were enabled by Lyft’s lax background checks and failure to enact reasonable in-app monitoring to help ensure rider safety,” said Mr. Cutter.
Alexandra LaManna, a spokeswoman for Lyft, disclosed to the New York Times: in 2019 nearly one in five employees at the company had been dedicated to initiatives strengthening the rideshare platform’s safety, and that in recent months Lyft had introduced more than 15 new safety features. Lyft announced in September of 2019 some of these safety features: access to 911 through the app and monitoring and offers of support from Lyft personnel to the driver and passenger if a trip is experiencing an unexpected delay. These are on top of the company’s criminal background checks, steps to prevent fraudulent use of the app and identify driver identity, and harassment prevention programs.
While it is a step in the right direction, the fact remains that more Lyft lawsuits are being filed every week in which it is alleged that the company has not taken adequate steps to protect riders from sexual assault.
In December 2019, Lyft competitor Uber released a safety report. In that report, Uber revealed that in 2017 and 2018 it received reports of 5,981 incidents of sexual abuse. Statistics provided included 235 rapes and 280 reports of attempted rape, 1,560 reports of groping, 376 reports of unwanted kissing to breast, buttocks or mouth and 594 reports of unwanted kissing to another body part in 2018 alone.
Because Uber’s figures are based on the information reported to the company, the actual numbers are likely higher Lyft has not released a safety report of any kind regarding sexual assaults, rapes, and accidents. Attorney Cutter finds the lack of safety report from Lyft to be problematic. “It is important for Lyft to issue a safety report so the public has a better understanding of the significant risk of sexual assault in rideshare vehicles,” he said.
If you are a victim of sexual assault committed by a Lyft driver, you are still eligible to file a lawsuit. Consolidation of the current lawsuits does not prevent future lawsuits from being filed. We know that there are likely many more victims who have yet to come forward about their experiences. If you believe that you or a loved one is a survivor of sexual assault by a Lyft or Uber driver, contact us immediately to explore your legal options and get help today.