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

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

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.

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 riders and passengers in 2017 and 2018. In December of 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) fined Uber $59 million for its failure to provide details on those thousands of sexual assault incidents. The CPUC ultimately reached a $9 million settlement with Uber over the sexual assault data, with $5 million going to the California Victims Compensation Board to be used for victims of sexual assault, and $4 million going to efforts to address physical and sexual violence in the passenger carrier industry.

Lyft released its own 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 December 2021, hundreds of women across the country have filed sexual-assault related personal injury lawsuits against Uber and Lyft.

The Basis for Claims Against Uber and Lyft

The people harmed (the "plaintiffs") in these cases argue 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 say that the ridesharing services failed to properly screen drivers, failed to prevent drivers from sexually assaulting passengers, 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 "vicarious liability" (also called 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 money damages (including punitive damages), and increased safety measures, such as video recordings of rides and better background checks.

The Ridesharing Companies' Defenses

In response to these claims, ridesharing 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 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 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 (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, like multi-district litigation (MDL), is meant to save the court and parties time and resources and promote settlement. But, if the parties can't reach a settlement agreement, individual cases return to their original court for trial.

Talk to a Lawyer

The rideshare legal landscape is evolving quickly. If you've been injured 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 fill out the form at the top or bottom of this page to connect with a lawyer for free.

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