Are Uber/Lyft Liable for Sexual Assault Against Rideshare Passengers?

Are rideshare companies responsible for failing to keep passengers safe from sexual assault?

By
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Nearly unheard of ten years ago, ridesharing—or the use of an app or website to connect passengers to drivers for one-time, on-demand car rides—is now common.

Uber and Lyft, the most popular ridesharing apps, have given passengers billions of rides since they launched in 2009 and 2012 respectively. But with the rise in popularity of rideshare apps, has come a rise in the number of lawsuits filed against Uber and Lyft.

Here's what you need to know about Uber and Lyft's liability for sexual violence against rideshare passengers:

  • Uber and Lyft received thousands of reports of sexual assaults during rides from 2017 to 2020.
  • Hundreds of people across the country have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Uber and Lyft.
  • The lawsuits claim that Uber and Lyft failed to properly screen and supervise drivers, failed to protect passengers from sexual assault, and ignored complaints about passenger safety.

What Is Considered Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault can take many forms. Some forms of sexual assault against rideshare passengers include:

  • fondling or unwanted sexual touching
  • forced oral sex, and
  • non-consensual sexual penetration.

Sexual assault is a crime. Victims can report sexual assault to law enforcement, which could lead to criminal charges against the perpetrator. Victims can also sue perpetrators in civil court and sue the businesses and institutions that failed to protect them. For example, a victim of child sexual abuse by a priest might sue the priest and the Catholic Church, and a rideshare passenger who is sexually assaulted by a driver might sue the driver and Uber or Lyft.

The Rise of Lawsuits Against Uber and Lyft for Sexual Assault

In December 2019, Uber released its first-ever safety report. The report revealed that Uber received nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assault from drivers and passengers in 2017 and 2018. Uber released its second-ever safety report in July 2022, revealing that just over 3,800 alleged incidents of sexual assault were reported to the company in 2019 and 2020.

Lyft released its first safety report in October 2021. The report disclosed that Lyft received more than 4,000 reports of sexual assaults during rides from 2017 to 2019.

As of September 2022, hundreds of people across the country have filed personal injury lawsuits against Uber and Lyft over sexual abuse.

The Basis for Claims Against Uber and Lyft

The people harmed (the "plaintiffs") in these cases argue that Uber and Lyft were negligent (careless) in hiring and supervising drivers and that they inflicted emotional distress on victims of sexual assault.

In support of these claims, plaintiffs say that the ridesharing services failed to properly screen drivers when they hired drivers without fingerprinting them or doing criminal background checks, failed to prevent drivers from sexually assaulting passengers with safety measures like video cameras in cars, and concealed or ignored complaints. Theories of false advertising and negligent misrepresentation are also common, with plaintiffs claiming that the ridesharing companies held themselves out as "safe ride" options while knowing their passengers were vulnerable to sexual assault.

Finally, plaintiffs in these cases have argued that Uber and Lyft are responsible for the actions of their drivers under a legal theory known as "vicarious liability," which holds employers responsible for the actions of their employees when those actions are committed within the scope of employment.

The plaintiffs seek compensation for their assault-related damages and increased safety measures, such as video recordings of rides and better background checks. Plaintiffs are also asking courts to punish Uber and Lyft by imposing punitive damages.

The Ridesharing Companies' Defenses

In response to these claims, rideshare companies have argued that they can't be held responsible for the actions of their drivers, whom they consider to be independent contractors rather than employees. (The status of rideshare drivers varies by state, and not all states have made a definitive determination of drivers' status by legislation or court decision.) Companies typically aren't responsible for the actions of independent contractors.

What Courts Have Ruled, and Where They're Heading

At least in federal courts, judges seem to be unmoved by Uber and Lyft's independent contractor defense. In a D.C. District Court opinion based on the stabbing of an Uber passenger, the court denied Uber's request to dismiss the lawsuit because the Uber driver wasn't an Uber employee. The court emphasized that the parties actual relationship and not contractual language is what matters and a reasonable jury could conclude that an Uber driver is an Uber employee. The court also focused on the rider's reasonable belief that the driver worked for the company. (Search v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 128 F.Supp.3d 222 (D.D.C. 2015).)

Sexual assault claims against rideshare companies lean heavily on what the companies knew, when they knew it, and whether reasonable safety measures (like better background checks or video monitoring) could have prevented the assaults.

In June 2020, dozens of sexual-assault related lawsuits filed by Lyft passengers were consolidated for pre-trial proceedings in San Francisco Superior Court. In June 2021, dozens more Uber passengers asked the court to consolidate their sexual-assault related lawsuits against Uber. Consolidation of similar lawsuits into federal or state multi-district litigation (MDL) is meant to save time and resources and promote settlement. But if the parties can't reach a settlement agreement, individual cases return to the court where they were originally filed for trial.

In July 2022, shortly after Uber released its second safety report, a law firm representing 550 clients filed a lawsuit against Uber alleging that passengers in multiple states were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers. The law firm is actively investigating 150 more potential claims. The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

August 2022 saw 17 Lyft drivers and passengers bring lawsuits against the company (filed in San Francisco). The plaintiffs in these cases claim that Lyft didn't do enough to prevent physical and sexual assaults from occurring (through more effective background checks of drivers, use of cameras in vehicles, and so on), and then did almost nothing to help the affected drivers and passengers in the aftermath of the attacks. According to NPR: "The plaintiffs in these most recent lawsuits said that the physical and psychological toll of their assaults is still fresh. Some said they pulled away from loved ones, and several reported having PTSD."

Talk to a Rideshare Lawsuit Lawyer

The rideshare legal landscape is evolving quickly. If you've been assaulted during an Uber or Lyft ride, talk to a lawyer. Get tips on finding the right lawyer for your Uber/Lyft passenger injury case. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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