San Francisco judge to kick off major sexual assault lawsuit against Uber
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San Francisco judge to kick off major sexual assault lawsuit against Uber

Uber is facing dozens of lawsuits that say the ride-hailing company didn’t do enough to keep passengers safe from sexual assault, and the proceedings are set to begin in the tech giant’s backyard.

Last week, a panel of judges ordered that 79 sexual assault lawsuits against Uber be consolidated into one court in San Francisco, with the potential for more cases to get tacked on. Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is set to preside over pretrial proceedings and discovery.

In public safety reports, Uber said it received 9,805 sexual assault reports from riders and drivers from 2017 to 2020, even though the crime often goes unreported. “Non-consensual touching of a sexual body part” was the most commonly reported type of sexual assault, and 852 reports included rape.

In Uber’s data, riders were accused of committing about 44% of the reported sexual assaults. The cases coming to before Breyer, however, are focused on allegations of assault committed by drivers.

Survivors are alleging that the ride-hailing company is in part responsible for some of the sexual violence, according to the judges’ order, arguing that Uber “failed to conduct adequate background checks of its drivers” and that it doesn’t do enough to protect passengers with safety precautions like cameras.

If the plaintiffs succeed, a ruling could have broad implications for Uber’s safety measures and responsibility for riders in the future.

“What we’re trying to do is, one, get accountability for these survivors, and two, affect change to make rideshare safe,” Kevin Conway, one of the lawyers behind the bid to consolidate the cases in San Francisco, told SFGATE. Conway said his firm represents more than 1,000 people who were sexually assaulted and want to hold Uber responsible and that more cases will be added to these proceedings.

“There needs to be cameras in every single Uber vehicle,” he added.

Uber had opposed the consolidation and suggested a North Carolina district as an alternative, arguing that the district has a lighter caseload, but the federal panel chose San Francisco. The company has been based in the city since its launch in 2010, and dozens of the lawsuits were already pending in the Northern District of California. Breyer presides in the district courthouse in San Francisco; Conway said his team asked specifically for Breyer. (The judge is also the brother of former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.)

Uber and Lyft successfully eroded much of the stigma around getting into a stranger’s car with their on-demand ride-hailing apps in the early 2010s, but questions about the model and allegations of violence have remained. In 2014, Uber introduced its “Safe Rides Fee,” often of about $1, which the company claimed would go toward background checks, driver training and car inspections. But the New York Times’ Mike Isaac reported in a 2019 Uber exposé that the fee hadn’t actually gone toward safety features and was instead a secretive way to goose revenues. A class-action lawsuit over the fee — lodged by riders who argued that Uber was misleadingly hyping up its safety protocols — forced Uber to change the name to “Booking Fee” and pay out $28.5 million in settlements, according to the New York Times.

“It’s sometimes a little cliche, but corporations bleed green,” Conway told SFGATE, pointing to past litigation that successfully got Uber to make changes to its processes. “If they’re not going to make these safety changes on their own on behalf of all of these survivors, we will make them.”

In 2018, a CNN investigation found that 103 Uber drivers in the United States had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers over a four-year span. Uber’s first public safety report came out about a year and a half later, showing 464 reported rapes in 2017 and 2018.

The firm’s second safety report emphasized the overall rarity of severe violence reports resulting from Uber rides — “.0002% of trips had a report of a critical safety incident,” the company wrote — but acknowledged that “even one is one too many.”

“Sexual assault is a horrific crime, and we take every report of this nature very seriously,” Uber spokesperson Gabriela Condarco-Quesada said in a statement to SFGATE on Thursday. “While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we are deeply committed to the safety of all users on the Uber platform.”

Source: SFGATE October 13 2023

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