Most sexual assault cases are treated as criminal cases, with the state charging the perpetrator directly. But in certain instances, sexual assault claims can be brought successfully in civil court as a personal injury claim.  An example is where the victim of the assault can prove that the assault was caused by the negligence of the company that employed the perpetrator, also known as negligent hiring. Here, we will discuss how big rideshare companies like Uber are dealing with claims of sexual assault, and how to contact a personal injury lawyer if you or a loved one have been harmed.

What is personal injury, and how does it relate to Uber?

Personal injury refers to any time a person suffers an injury to the body, mind, or emotions (as opposed to property damage, etc.). Some examples of types of cases based on personal injury include workplace accidents, car accidents, truck accidents, or defective products.  In addition, cases for personal injury because of sexual assault are being filed more frequently where the assault that happens during a rideshare.  This is not surprising in light of the fact that Uber recently reported that an internal safety study they did found almost 6,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in just two years. 

That gives rise to the question: Can a rideshare company such as Uber be held responsible for a sexual assault by one of its drivers?  In addition, what preventative measures are rideshare companies taking in order to try to prevent these assaults from occurring in the future. 

Well, who is responsible for sexual assault in an Uber?

For a sexual assault, obviously, justice demands that the perpetrator be held criminally responsible. The state has the power to bring criminal charges against the perpetrator of a crime such as sexual assault for the purpose of holding that person criminally responsible and punishing that person if found guilty  In a criminal case, the punishment is taking away the freedom of the person found guilty of a crime. That is justice in a criminal case.

In a civil case, the truth is that justice is money.  A court or jury cannot take away the harm caused or replace a person’s health or life.  What our civil system of justice provides for is compensation with money. If a sexual assault happens, a civil claim can be brought against the individual perpetrator, although all too often that person does not have money or assets that could satisfy a civil judgment.  Depending on the circumstance, a civil claim can also be brought and won against the person or entity that enabled the perpetrator.  

That leads us to the issue of civil justice where a sexual assault was committed by a driver during a rideshare.  Today, we are seeing civil claims brought against rideshare companies such as Uber because of sexual assaults by their drivers.  The claim is typically based on negligent hiring and/or negligent retention by the rideshare company of the driver who committed the assault.  The standard defense by the rideshare company is that the driver was an independent contractor, not an employee of the company, and that the company therefore had no control over the driver’s actions and thus no responsibility. 

In addition, as a part of the agreement between a passenger and the rideshare company when a passenger accepts a ride, the passenger is required to give up their right under the U.S. Constitution to a trial by jury for any claim he or she may have, and instead must pursue the claim through arbitration.  All too often, arbitration is simply a way for corporations to limit justice for people, and then keep the claim and the result secret through a confidentiality requirement.  

Lauren Kaori Gurley, a staff writer at Motherboard, says that all too often these companies refuse to take responsibility in these cases. Whereas many victims would hope that their perpetrator would be deactivated as a driver and prohibited from driving after one or more credible accusation or accusations, it seems that many companies will simply prohibit the driver from being paired with that victim again – meaning that the perpetrator is still allowed to drive other people and potential victims. 

In fact, Professor Alexandrea Ravenelle, who teaches sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, says that because the rideshare companies classify their drivers not as employees but as independent contractors, the companies thus “outsource” the blame to the Uber/Lyft drivers instead of accepting liability for allowing the drivers to operate through the company.  In sum, the rideshare companies all too often deny liability and refuse to be held accountable. 

Additionally, Gurley says that the rideshare companies rarely contact the victim after an assault is reported, thus offering no support and leaving the person wondering what to do next.

Are there preventative measures that can be taken?

Cindy Southworth serves as the executive vice president at the U.S. National Network to End Domestic Violence and is on the safety advisory committee for Uber. She says that Uber is taking a bold step by working with nonprofits to do sexual assault prevention work and education in a broader context. Additionally, she recommends rideshare companies hire more female drivers – and particularly drivers who are survivors of sexual assault who are trying to get back on their feet. 

While these are good first steps, it’s hard to know whether other rideshare companies such as Lyft and Juno will begin to work in the communities as well to learn more about sexual assault victims, and whether Uber will be held accountable for these 6,000 assaults and any more to come in the future.

Contact a personal injury attorney today

If you or someone you know is the victim of a sexual assault during a rideshare by Uber, Lyft or some other company, and  is in need of help in the fight for justice and compensation, contact us at the Callahan Law Firm today. Our legal team is ready to commit the time, resources and energy necessary to see that justice is done.