Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Can Uber Be Sued for Sexual Assault of Passenger by Driver?

A recent ruling by a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco potentially opened the floodgates for lawsuits against the ride-sharing service Uber. The ruling was handed down in a pair of civil cases in which two women have sued, alleging that Uber, as the employer of two drivers who sexually assaulted them, holds liability for the actions of its employees.

Uber filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss the claims as the drivers were independent contractors and not employees. The judge found that the women had established sufficient facts in order to show that the drivers were employees at the time of the assaults and were acting in the course and scope of their employment. 

The court's ruling allows the pair of lawsuits to move forward, but it doesn't mean that the women will ultimately be successful with their claims. It is important, however, because of the court's finding that Uber could be found to be an employer of its drivers. Under the law, employers may be held to be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees while their employees are acting within the course and scope of their employment. 

One of the plaintiffs is a woman who was assaulted by an Uber driver in Boston. That man was convicted of assault and battery and was sentenced to two years of probation. In the other case, a woman in South Carolina alleged she was sexually assaulted by an Uber driver. That man's criminal case is pending, and he is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping.

Uber has long maintained that its drivers are independent contractors and not employees. This is an important distinction under the law. Companies are not liable for the conduct of independent contractors, but they do hold potential liability for the actions of employees. The company recently settled two class-action lawsuits filed by drivers who were seeking classification as employees rather than as independent contractors. It also recently settled a suit filed by prosecutors in California in which it agreed to pay a minimum of $10 million for allegations that its background checks for the drivers are inadequate. In that case, prosecutors allege that the company doesn't conduct the same degree of investigation that is required of taxi companies by not completing fingerprint checks. Uber relies on online background checks instead.

In order to prevail in a civil sexual assault lawsuit against an employer in California, the plaintiff must be able to show several things. They must first establish that an employee-employer relationship existed. They must then show that the employee wasn't fit to do the work for which he or she was hired, that the employer either knew or should have known about the employee's unfitness and that the unfitness of the employee caused the plaintiff harm. 

In the women's cases, the court's ruling gets them past the first hurdle. It will be left for a jury to determine whether or not an employee-employer relationship did in fact exist. Another potential issue the plaintiffs will likely need to address is whether or not Uber knew or should have known that the two men in question were unfit for the jobs for which they were hired. The suit by the prosecutors regarding the company's inadequate background checks is illuminating and points to an argument the plaintiffs could potentially make in order to establish this required element of their cases.

If a person is sexually assaulted, he or she may file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. A lawsuit may be filed even if the perpetrator is also facing criminal prosecution. When the defendant is working at the time he or she commits the assault, the victim may file suit against both the perpetrator and his or her employer. People who are assaulted by drivers while using a ride-share service should contact a civil sexual assault attorney to learn about their rights.