On August 1, seven women filed sexual assault lawsuits against Lyft, alleging they were raped or assaulted by Lyft drivers, then charged fees for rides even after reporting them to the company.
Four of these women allege that they were raped by their Lyft drivers. One woman, a resident of Louisiana, claims that after spending an evening with a friend in New Orleans in January 2019, she was “raped and sodomized” by her Lyft driver in his home. In 2016, another woman ordered a Lyft after a night out in San Diego. Hours later, her friends walked in on her Lyft driver allegedly raping her in her bedroom. “It’s important to note that a large number of our clients were victims of a physical sexual assault of some kind, not just harassment,” Meghan McCormick, an attorney on the case told Motherboard.
As part of its business model, Lyft has tried to distinguish itself as the woke counterpart to Uber. In 2015, Lyft partnered with the White House on an anti-sexual assault campaign that provided credits for free rides during spring break—“making it easier to get a safe ride home even if you’re in a new city.” The attorneys litigating these sexual assault cases argue that Lyft “induces passengers, particularly young, unaccompanied, intoxicated, and/or vulnerable women, to use its services with the expectation of safety.”
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The seven women are represented by a San Francisco law firm, Levin, Simes, & Abrams, which has taken the lead nationally in litigating sexual assault lawsuits against Lyft and Uber.
“Right now, we have over 100 cases between Lyft and Uber. We’re getting new cases every day,” said Laurel Simes, an attorney at Levin, Simes, and Abrams.
Since posting an open call for rideshare assault cases on the firm's website, a flurry of women, mostly between the ages of 22 and 35, have contacted Levin, Simes, and Abrams about taking legal action for sexual assaults allegedly committed by rideshare drivers. The firm claims it opens five to 10 new cases against Lyft and Uber a week.
“We don’t know of any other firms working on these rideshare sexual assault cases on the same scale,” said Rachel Abrams, another attorney on the case. The seven suits were filed on August 1, after failed negotiations to reach a settlement outside of court.
Some advocates have noted that Lyft’s app, which requires users navigate a labyrinthine process to file a complaint, is less user-friendly than Uber’s, which requires a single click. Last year, Uber installed a “panic button” (a small blue shield) which remains on the app's home screen during the ride, allowing the passenger to swipe up to dial 911. In May, Lyft announced it was launching a similar feature in “coming months,” but has yet to complete its rollout. The month prior, Lyft began daily criminal background searches on its drivers, a year after Uber had made the change. It’s worth remembering that Uber and Lyft unceremoniously shut down operations in Austin, Texas in 2016 in protest of local legislation that mandated fingerprint background checks for drivers. (Both companies returned to the city when a Texas law killed the requirement.)
Some advocates have noted that Lyft’s app, which requires users navigate a labyrinthine process to file a complaint, is less user-friendly than Uber’s, which requires a single click.
“We do not tolerate harassment or violence on our platform, and such behavior can and does result in a permanent ban from our service. We have made it a priority to continually invest in features that put riders in control of their experience," a spokesperson from Lyft told Motherboard. "This includes in-app photos of the driver and vehicle, with increased license plate visibility, real-time ride tracking, digital receipts, and a two-way rating system with mandatory secondary feedback.”
Still, the attorneys litigating the sexual assault cases against Lyft say that the company has not done enough to protect women passengers. The attorneys are pushing both Lyft and Uber to implement “enhanced background checks, biometric fingerprinting, job interviews, electronic monitoring systems” as well as car cameras, none of which they currently require. Without these security measures, attorneys argue that women will continue to be sexually assaulted by Lyft drivers. “These are giant tech companies. They can put a damn camera in the car,” said Laurel Simes, the attorney on the case.
But increased worker surveillance, background checks, and biometric data collection bring up concerns about worker control and racial bias in an industry where many workers suffer from a lack of transparency about how their wages are set and how their job performance is judged. Lauren Casey, an organizer at Gig Workers Rising in San Jose, said that drivers are frustrated by sudden, unexplained deactivations of their accounts. “Deactivations can be triggered from a background check or a driver complaint. It’s very unclear what happens. Some get locked out for two days and then it turns back on,” said Casey. In the meantime, “they’re being locked out of an indispensable part of their income.”
Men of color make up a disproportionate percentage of Lyft drivers, and are charged with crimes and subject to police stops at higher rates than other groups. These drivers could disproportionately suffer from increased background checks and surveillance.
After Uber implemented daily background checks last year, 20,000 drivers were removed from the app. Lyft has not released similar data. It has also declined to reveal how frequently it receives complaints about sexual harassment.