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—has soared to ubiquity in the past five years. Uber, the most popular ridesharing app, is estimated to have completed 10 billion rides since its inception; Lyft, its closest competitor, has completed around one billion.
While the vast majority of rides are incident-free, in December 2019 Uber released its U.S. Safety Report, which included an acknowledgement that Uber passengers had reported 6,000 incidents of sexual assault in connection with rideshares from 2017 and 2019. In December of 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission fined Uber $59 million over its failure to provide details on those 6,000-some assault incidents. (Read the CPUC's decision on the fine.)
While Lyft has not published reports of sexual assault occurring on rides, it is not immune, as seen in the increasing number of lawsuits filed against both of these companies in state and federal court. As of January 2021, there were roughly 40 sexual-assault related personal injury lawsuits filed against Lyft in state courts. Uber has been sued roughly 30 times in state courts for the same kinds of claims (along with at least 30 similar cases in federal court). Lyft, as of January 2021, seems to have avoided any federal lawsuits.
The plaintiffs in these cases have alleged negligent hiring, negligent supervision, negligent retention, and negligent infliction of emotional distress on the part of Uber and Lyft. (Learn more about the legal concept of negligence.)
In support of these claims, plaintiffs argue that the ridesharing services failed to prevent drivers from sexually assaulting customers, and 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 are 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 "respondeat superior," which lets employers be held responsible for the actions of their employees when those actions are committed within the scope of employment. The plaintiffs seek a variety of damages (including punitive damages), and increased safety measures, such as video recordings of rides and increased background checks.
In response to these claims, ridesharing companies have argued that they cannot 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 via legislation or court decision.) In general (though not always), a company is not responsible for the actions of an independent contractor.
At least in federal courts, judges seem to be unmoved by the independent contractor defense. In a D.C. District Court opinion based on the stabbing of an Uber passenger, the court found that whether a driver was an independent contractor or employee was irrelevant to the claims, focusing instead on the riders' reasonable belief as to whether the driver worked for the company. Other courts have made similar rulings.
Sexual assault-based claims against rideshare companies lean heavily on what the companies knew (and when they knew it), and whether reasonable safety measures could have been enacted that would have prevented the assaults. Courts have also focused on whether the company could have reasonably prevented the assaults—for instance, whether better background checks would have found a previous conviction for sexual assault that the current screening process did not uncover, or whether video monitoring would have deterred the driver from the assault.
Legal issues surrounding cases against rideshare companies are constantly evolving. If you've been injured in a traffic accident or some other incident while riding as a passenger in an Uber or Lyft vehicle, your best first step might be to discuss your situation with a lawyer. Get tips on finding the right lawyer for your Uber/Lyft passenger injury case.