Was it Legal for Uber to Refuse Ride to Pregnant Woman in Labor?

After an Uber driver drove away from a potential customer in kind of desperate need—and charged her $13 for it—the company roundly condemned the practice. We asked a civil rights attorney if this was an act of discrimination.

by Sophie Saint Thomas
Jan 14 2016, 11:10pm

Image via Stocksy/Dimitrije Tanaskovic

Uber is once again under scrutiny, and this time it's for more than just their surge rates: A New York City Uber driver recently refused a ride to the hospital to a woman in labor, as Fortune reported on Tuesday.

After the woman (who chose to remain unnamed in the report) went into labor, she and her husband, a lawyer named David Lee, called their birthing coach. Then they did what many New York residents would do when you need a car quickly: pull out your phone and tap for an Uber. However, once the car arrived, the driver witnessed the laboring woman get sick on the sidewalk and refused to take them on the basis that "he would lose $1,000 a day if Lee's wife became sick in the car." He added that "no other driver would accept a woman in labor as a passenger," according to Fortune. The couple was then charged $13 for "lost time," although they would be refunded the amount after complaining to Uber.

According to New York civil rights attorney Eric Sanders, the driver's decision to refuse service to the woman in labor for fear that she might become ill in his vehicle is based on an assumption. "If that's the case, then you shouldn't pick up anyone," he told Broadly. "You can have a passenger get sick any time—then what do you do? You can't invite the public in to use a business, then pick and choose which one gets picked up based on perceptions of disabilities. How are you going to operate?"

Despite their label as a tech company, Uber is still bound by the same public accommodation laws as New York City yellow cabs, according to Fortune. These laws prohibit from discriminating against pregnant passengers. "When you invite the public into your vehicle, you have the public accommodation law apply," Sanders told Broadly. "Pregnancy is considered a temporary disability. It's like other temporary disabilities—[such as] when you have a broken arm—but unlike most temporary disabilities, this is a natural disability. You get pregnant: That's a natural part of life, assuming you want to have children," added Sanders. "If [the driver] is treating her differently because she's a pregnant female, then that would be wrong."

Lee and his wife eventually made it to the hospital in another Uber car, and the baby was delivered healthily, Fortune reports. In an email to Broadly, Uber condemned the driver's behavior. "Denying service to a passenger in labor is unacceptable: it goes against our code of conduct and the standard of service our riders rely on," said a spokesman for the company. "We extend our deepest apologies to both riders and have taken action to respond to this complaint. We are glad that the rider's next driver was professional and courteous. As always, we will continue to ensure that all riders and drivers understand and the shared standard of respect, accountability, and courtesy for everyone in the Uber community."The company also pointed to its non-discrimination policy.

Obviously, Uber cannot control the actions of each individual driver, but they do have a responsibility to ensure they are educated on discrimination law. "[Drivers are] using your line, they're using your product, they're using your symbol—you should ensure that people are going to operate using your name and image are going to operate within the bounds of the law," Sanders told Broadly. Regarding driver education, Uber wrote, "In NYC, since all drivers who use the Uber app are commercially licensed, they receive training on local regulations through the TLC approval process."

Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy falls under unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Remember, pregnancy discrimination is just another form of gender discrimination, because only women can get pregnant," Sanders said.

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