Lyft Faces Sexual Assault Lawsuits That Could Tarnish Image

By Robert Burnson | August 13, 2019

Lyft Inc.’s image as the “woke” ride-hailing company faces a new challenge from a rash of lawsuits filed by women who claim they were sexually assaulted by drivers summoned to take them home after evenings of partying.

Since Aug. 1, seven female passengers have sued the company in San Francisco, its hometown, and lawyers at the women-led firm representing those riders say there are more complaints to come.

Lyft president and co-founder John Zimmer described the startup to Time magazine in 2017 as “woke” in contrast to larger competitor Uber Technologies Inc., which was in the midst of a sex harassment scandal. But on Monday, an attorney leading the Lyft cases said that isn’t what she’s found while working with scores of female clients who blame the companies for failing to protect them from predatory drivers.

Private negotiations to try to head off litigation have gone better with Uber than with Lyft, lawyer Laurel Simes said, adding that she wants both companies to do more extensive background checks to weed out dangerous drivers and to install video monitors in ride-share vehicles.

“Uber seems to be taking more of a reasonable approach about making changes,” Simes said. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s talk, let’s figure out what we can do.’ Where Lyft seems to be more scorched earth.”

Lyft had no immediate comment on the new suits. Uber also had no immediate comment.

Lyft is already facing public scrutiny after the Washington Post and NBC’s Today show recently reported on allegations of harassment from female customers. The reports raise questions about Lyft’s ability to differentiate itself from Uber, which has long struggled to fend off criticism that it doesn’t do enough to ensure rides are safe. Both companies went public this year.

In April 2018, a CNN investigation found that 103 Uber drivers and 18 Lyft drivers had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the previous four years. The next month, both companies committed to releasing data about safety incidents on their platforms. Uber issued a “transparency report” in July 2018 showing aggregate data about requests from law enforcement agencies, though it didn’t include a breakdown on harassment and assault allegations.

Lyft said in April that it was increasing the frequency of its background checks to include “daily monitoring of its active drivers and immediate notification of any disqualifying criminal convictions.” It also announced an enhancement to its identity verification process to prevent fraud by drivers intent on hiding their criminal records.

The new Lyft suits describe assaults in urban markets including Seattle, Washington and New Orleans.

A woman from Miami alleges that when the driver arrived at her home in May 2018, he turned around, ostensibly to help her unbutton her seat belt, and forcibly kissed her. In an incident in a suburb of Washington in July 2017, the driver allegedly grabbed the woman’s crotch when she bent over to pick up her bags.

Four of the women, each identified only as Jane Doe, say they were raped by their drivers in their own homes. In one case, a woman claims she summoned a Lyft in San Diego after an evening out for drinks in October 2016. When she didn’t reply to text messages from her friends, they went her house and found her unconscious with the Lyft driver having sex with her, according to the complaint.

The firm of Levin Simes & Abrams, which specializes in product-injury cases against big companies, solicits victims of ride-share assaults on its website. Simes said the firm is investigating complaints, varying from rape to stalking, involving about 100 women.

The complaints filed this month allege that while Lyft has promoted itself as a safe way for women to get home after a night out, the company is responsible for a “sexual predator crisis.”

The bottom line is that not all ride-share drivers can be trusted, Simes said.

“A woman or girl went out with her friend and then instead of taking taking a taxi cab, they take an Uber or a Lyft, which is very convenient,” she said. “The woman may even fall asleep in the back of the car. And when they get home, the driver says, ‘You seem to be unsteady on your feet. Let me walk you to your door,’ and then things unravel from there.”

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