SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Thousands of sexual assault lawsuits from across the country against ride-hail giant Uber have been consolidated into one federal court case in the Northern District of California.
The lawsuits have the potential to rock the industry and could lead to safety changes such as mandatory in-vehicle surveillance of drivers.
Rachel Abrams, a sexual assault attorney and partner at the law firm Peiffer Wolf, is coordinating with a team of attorneys in a centralized multidistrict litigation for all plaintiffs nationally, she announced at a news conference Wednesday. The litigation is focused only on passengers, not drivers who may have been assaulted.
The cases were centralized on Oct. 4.
Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer will oversee the case in San Francisco, Abrams said. Uber is headquartered in the city.
Peiffer Wolf files “dozens of cases” every day against Uber, and Abrams said she believes there are “thousands” of people who have been sexually assaulted with claims against Uber. Because not everyone reports their experiences, the number of people who have been assaulted is likely higher, Abrams said.
Currently there are 90 cases consolidated under the multidistrict litigation. The total number is expected to be over 1,000 cases.
“This is one of the largest federal sexual assault litigations ever, and it will undoubtedly change the American rideshare industry forever,” said Kevin Conway, managing partner at Peiffer Wolf. “In the future, we’ll look back with disbelief that Uber drivers were once permitted to operate without any meaningful or effective oversight.”
Abrams said Uber has been aware since 2014 that drivers were sexually assaulting passengers. Even though the company acknowledged that the assaults were happening in 2019, the company has failed to implement any policies or mandates to protect riders.
In addition, Abrams said that Uber is hiding the scope of the problem because it has not released any sexual-assault data from 2021 or 2022.
“Thousands of sexual assaults are reported to Uber every year, yet it refuses to make necessary safety changes, such as mandatory in-vehicle video surveillance, extensive background checks with fingerprinting, sexual harassment education, and a zero-tolerance policy for drivers who break the rules,” Abrams said. “Sexual assaults will continue to happen every day until there are cameras installed in every Uber vehicle.”
In 2014, Uber started charging riders a $1 “safe-ride fee,” which the company claimed was used to “support our continued efforts to ensure the safest possible platform for Uber riders and drivers, including an industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app and insurance.’
Abrams accused Uber of pocketing the money from the safe-ride fee without making any safety changes. The fee made Uber “hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue, Abrams said.
Abrams claimed Uber’s policy for hiring drivers was simple: make as much money as quickly as possible.
“They used a background check system designed to get drivers approved as quickly and conveniently as possible, all while ignoring customer safety measures for passengers,” Abrams said.
The company also does not report any criminal activity to law enforcement, Abrams said.
“Uber is proud of this policy and feels very strongly that it is not Uber’s job to go to the police on behalf of passengers when an Uber driver rapes an Uber passenger,” Abrams said.
Abrams said Uber’s current and former leadership is directly responsible for sexual and physical assaults in Uber vehicles.
Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick intentionally hired drivers without fingerprinting them or running them through FBI databases, Abrams said. The company has actively lobbied and resisted against any municipality or regulatory agency implementing any type of biometric fingerprinting requirement for drivers, according to Abrams.
Kalanick knew or should have known that these policies could result in harm for Uber passengers, Abrams said.
Uber’s current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has kept these policies in place, including the policy to not report criminal activity to the police.
An Uber spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation but added, “Sexual assault is a horrific crime, and we take every report of this nature very seriously. While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we are deeply committed to the safety of all users on the Uber platform.”
“We’ve always been told not to get into a car with strangers. Yet, Uber continues to mislead the public into believing that it is safe, as it avoids responsibility for passenger safety,” Abrams said. “It’s possible to make Uber rides safe, but major changes are necessary, and mandatory cameras in every Uber vehicle is the first step. We’ll be fighting for survivors and standing alongside our incredibly brave clients until we get there.”
Abrams said that Lyft, another ride-hail company, could find itself in court soon as well. She expects the company will be facing multidistrict litigation separate from the cases against Uber because they are different companies. Lyft’s headquarters are also in San Francisco.
On a separate but parallel track, Abrams is also central to an in-state mass litigation on behalf of California residents who were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers in California.
Source: Courthouse News Service October 11 2023