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

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 2019.
  • 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. 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 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 in hiring and supervising drivers and that they inflicted emotional distress on victims of sexual assault. (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 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 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 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, like 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.

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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