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Sexual assault suit against Uber drivers moves forward

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In April, I reported on Uber's $25 million settlement for misrepresenting the quality of its background checks.

Now, the rideshare company has a lawsuit of a different sort to contend with. In late May, a California court decided that two women may proceed in a lawsuit against Uber. The suit alleges that Uber drivers sexually assaulted the two women, and Uber is liable.

Police arrested and charged Uber driver Abderrahim Dakiri for assaulting Jane Doe 1, of Connecticut, during a ride home in February. Jane Doe 2, of Florida, alleges that driver Patrick Aiello, a middle school teacher, raped her. Police arrested Aiello in August 2015 on charges of kidnapping and first-degree sexual misconduct.

The court rejected Uber's claim that it had no control over the drivers because they were independent contractors. The court also rejected Uber's claim that the conduct took place outside the scope of the drivers' employment. It wrote in its opinion that assaults by "taxi-like drivers" are not so unusual, and that situations like these are exactly why customers expect background checks.

As the case moves forward, many have wondered whether sexual assaults by Uber drivers are common. As reported in an article for Slate, the City of Austin, Texas conducted a narrow survey of its sexual assault reports to find out. Of assaults that took place in rides and cabs between April and August 2015, it found five complaints against Uber drivers, two against Lyft drivers, and three against traditional taxi companies. It admitted that more research needs to be done to determine if this is an issue.

If you catch a ride with a rideshare company, consider these stay-safe practices:

• If your driver shows up and you instantly feel uncomfortable getting in the car, listen to your gut. Uber charges a $5 to $10 cancellation fee, depending on the city-a small price to pay for your safety.

• Use the ETA feature. With Uber's ETA feature, you can share your route with friends and family so they know when to expect you. If you are late or veer off route, they'll know something's up.

• If your driver makes suggestive comments or otherwise threatens your safety during a ride, abort the ride. If your driver won't abort the ride, call 911. To date, Uber does not have an emergency hotline. It does have a rapid response email, responded to 24/7. Use it, but I doubt its response would be as rapid as you would need. 911 is your best bet for true emergency situations.

Rideshare companies are still so new that the courts are still sorting out issues with insurance, background checks, and independent contractor status. If you've been injured in an accident that involves a rideshare driver, or if the driver assaults or hits you, contact a personal injury attorney right away.

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David G. Smith, Attorney At Law
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