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14 women sue Lyft for allegedly mishandling sexual assault and rape reports

Fourteen women are suing Lyft over allegedly mishandling their sexual assault, sexual misconduct and rape complaints against drivers that occurred while usin...

Posted: Sep 5, 2019 3:35 AM

Fourteen women are suing Lyft over allegedly mishandling their sexual assault, sexual misconduct and rape complaints against drivers that occurred while using its service, bringing renewed attention to the issue of safety in the ride-hail industry.

The women, each listed anonymously in a suit filed Wednesday, allege that Lyft "chooses to stonewall" law enforcement investigating assaults and that it fails to inform victims about the status of the drivers they've accused of sexual assault or rape. They allege that Lyft is negligent in its background checks and fails to protect passengers with added technology. They claim Lyft has chosen to "hide and conceal" the scope of its "sexual predator crisis" on the platform.

The alleged incidents, detailed in the 40-page lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court, occurred between January 2018 and June 2019 and span the country from California to North Carolina. Some of the alleged assaults occurred when women used the service at night after they had been drinking, a pattern that CNN has previously reported on. The suit alleges that the company has been aware of drivers sexually assaulting and raping female customers since as early as 2015.

One driver accessed his victim's phone after raping her and added a $25 tip on the ride that ended in her assault, according to the lawsuit. In another allegation, a blind woman took a Lyft to the grocery store in the middle of the day; the driver then offered her a free ride home that was not ordered through the Lyft app, and forced himself into her home to rape her, the suit alleges.

Many of the women claim Lyft was largely unresponsive when the incidents were reported to the company. In the case of the blind woman, Lyft allegedly called back and emailed one week after she left an in-app complaint. A police investigation into her case was closed because "they had no evidence that the incident was not consensual," the suit said.

Many of the women say they were not informed whether the accused drivers would continue to work for Lyft. In one case detailed in the suit, a driver continued to work for the company after the female passenger reported a sexual assault to Lyft and to the police. A police detective informed the woman that the driver was still working for the company two weeks after the passenger complained about the incident.

The lawsuit said the driver was charged with battery and pleaded guilty but that Lyft still hasn't confirmed to the woman that he is not driving for the company anymore. Lyft confirmed to CNN Business that the driver no longer working for it.

In a statement from Mary Winfield, Lyft's head of trust and safety called the allegation descriptions "terrifying."

"As a platform committed to providing safe transportation, we hold ourselves to a higher standard by designing products and policies to keep out bad actors, make riders and drivers feel safe, and react quickly if and when an incident does occur. Our commitment is stronger than ever, as we dedicate more resources in our continued effort to ensure our riders and drivers have the safest possible experience," Winfield said.

The company touted recent safety measures including making sexual harassment prevention training available to riders and drivers, but that is not mandatory.

The lawsuit also claims the company does not proactively report incidents to the police, and that "many of the assault victims have been told by detectives handling their case that Lyft's Trust and Safety team are often unresponsive to the detective's requests."

Lyft's policy indicates that it only cooperates with police when they can provide a subpoena or formal legal order.

While there is no publicly available data on the number of sexual assaults allegedly committed by Uber or Lyft drivers, a 2018 CNN investigation found that at least 103 Uber drivers and 18 Lyft drivers in the United States have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers since 2014.

"Sexual assault is a horrible crime that has no place anywhere," an Uber spokesperson said at the time. "While Uber is not immune to this societal issue, we want to be part of the solution to end this violence forever."

A Lyft spokesperson said then that it has "worked hard to design policies and features that protect our community," calling safety "our top priority."

Following CNN's investigation, Uber, followed by Lyft, announced it would do away with a policy that previously forced individuals with sexual assault complaints into arbitration and made them sign non-disclosure agreements. Uber also promised to publish a safety transparency report that will put numbers behind sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on its platform. Lyft said it, too, intended to disclose a safety report. Neither has done so yet.

Since then, Lyft's US operations have only grown and, at times, the company has benefited from Uber's very public struggles with its own reputation. One of the plaintiffs said in the suit that she took a Lyft believing it to be "a safer alternative than Uber." In reality, it faces the same issues when it comes to passenger safety. For example, both companies use the same third-party company to perform background checks on drivers, a system that has proven to be insufficient at times.

In order to build a robust network to best serve customers, the companies rely on their ability to onboard and retain drivers. The lawsuit against Lyft highlights these mismatched interests, despite both companies' claims that safety is a top priority. "Sadly, Lyft's priority is not passenger safety. Profits are Lyft's priority," the suit said.

In some ways, Lyft is a step behind Uber when it comes to updating its safety measures. For instance, the company announced continuous driver background checks one year after Uber and enhanced identity verification checks two years after Uber. Lyft also announced in May that it would add an in-app emergency button "in the coming weeks," a feature that's been available in Uber since last year. The feature has yet to fully roll out.

The suit argues that some new requirements could help better protect passengers, such as video recordings inside vehicles, prohibiting drivers from turning off the app while on a trip or sending alerts to the drivers and passenger(s) when the trip has gone off course.

"Lyft could make simple changes to their app to protect passengers and eliminate future assaults but they have chosen not to," said one of the attorneys behind the lawsuit, Mike Bomberger, in a statement. "We believe Lyft knows how many assaults occur within their cars and that is why they don't want Lyft rides recorded."

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