Uber passengers alleging they were sexually assaulted by their drivers are taking a bumpy road through the courts.
After an unexpected detour this year, the sexual assault lawsuits against Uber Technologies Inc. returned this month to San Francisco, where the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation sent them to U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in the Northern District of California.
Many of the plaintiffs had originally sued in California state courts, but dozens had to refile cases in federal courts this year after San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman dismissed nearly 1,000 lawsuits brought by passengers outside California.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers with cases in multidistrict litigation are predicting thousands of lawsuits, which allege Uber’s policies and procedures failed to prevent sexual assault of passengers by providing inadequate screening and training of drivers, and few safety features on the app.
The lawsuits, most filed by plaintiffs using pseudonyms, have harrowing stories: An intoxicated woman who was raped by an Uber driver after going out with friends in New York, and a woman in Springfield, Illinois, whose Uber driver took her to a secluded road and forced her to have oral sex.
“This case is about this attack as well as the toxic-male culture at Uber that caused this attack,” says a complaint filed by Katherine Hylin, the Illinois woman. “A culture that started at the very top of Uber that prized growth above all else and in the process exploited, endangered, and hurt women and girls, including plaintiff.”
A representative of Uber and its lawyer, Robert Atkins, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, did not respond to a request for comment. Uber, based in San Francisco, has moved to dismiss some of the cases but has focused primarily on opposing any coordination of the sexual abuse cases, whether in state or federal courts.
“Each involves different types of sexual misconduct allegedly committed by different drivers (none employed by Uber) against different plaintiffs, in different time periods and places, with different witnesses and under different circumstances,” Atkins wrote in opposing multidistrict litigation.
Many of the same lawyers pursuing cases against Lyft have filed lawsuits against Uber, including Rachel Abrams, a partner at Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise in San Francisco, who moved to coordinate the federal cases against Uber into multidistrict litigation.
About 1,000 cases are filed against Lyft, now coordinated before San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Andrew Cheng. As Uber did, Lyft sought to dismiss the non-California plaintiffs from the JCCP. But Cheng, in a 2021 order, sided with the plaintiffs.
At a Jan. 4 hearing in the Uber JCCP, Atkins pressed for the same result. He said the docket would become overly burdensome given that Uber planned to drag the drivers into the cases and file dismissal motions, which would be based on several state laws.
“The JCCP surely wasn’t adopted in order for this court system to become flooded with cases from all over the country just because it might be more efficient for lawyers to have them all here,” he said.
“To the contrary,” he continued, “coordination was to lighten the load on California courts, not increase it.”
Schulman, in the end, sided with Uber.
“Because the harms plaintiffs allegedly sustained occurred outside California, California’s interest in providing plaintiffs a forum is outweighed by that of the state where their injuries occurred,” he wrote in a Jan. 23 opinion. “Plaintiffs ignore or understate the importance of other states’ tort and regulatory laws in setting the standards by which Uber’s liability for alleged sexual misconduct or sexual assaults by its drivers are likely to be determined.”
Schulman’s opinion, however, didn’t persuade the MDL panel to reject coordinating the cases into multidistrict litigation. In its Oct. 4 order, the panel found common factual issues predominated pertaining to Uber’s knowledge of the prevalence of sexual assault.
In contrast, the panel wrote, “the state court weighed public interest considerations—such as avoiding overburdening local courts with foreign cases—that we do not examine.”
Full Story: Law.com October 12 2023