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14 Women Allegedly Assaulted by Lyft Drivers Sue the Company

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Gladys (left), who declined to give her last name, is one of 14 women suing Lyft over its handling of alleged sexual assaults against them by its drivers.  (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Fourteen women who were allegedly assaulted by their Lyft drivers sued the San Francisco-based ride-service company Wednesday. They allege Lyft is acting negligently by not doing enough to prevent assaults by its drivers and not cooperating with law enforcement. The lawsuit argues Lyft does this because it has a financial incentive to recruit as many drivers as possible.

"They knew about this issue but they've done nothing about it," said attorney Steve Estey, who represents the 14 women. "Instead you'll see they're focusing on increasing their market share, which just exposes more women to being sexually assaulted."

According to the lawsuit, attorneys uncovered 100 cases of reported sexual assault by Lyft drivers in California over a one-year period between 2015 and 2016. Estey added that his law firm is pursuing a separate potential lawsuit against Uber with similar allegations.

The lawsuit claims that Lyft allows people who have convictions or pending complaints of sexual assault to continue driving for the platform, does not performs adequate background checks on its drivers, and does not have an appropriate or transparent internal reporting process.

"This lawsuit is a little bit different than the others that have been filed against Lyft," Estey said, "because not only does it allege that Lyft failed to take precautions to protect its passengers, it also alleges that the app that the people use is defective. And that the app actually enables these drivers to rape and sexual assault."

Lyft, however, says safety is fundamental to the company.

“What the victims describe is terrifying and has no place in the Lyft community. One in six women will face some form of sexual violence in their lives — behavior that’s unacceptable for our society and on our platform," said Mary Winfield, Lyft's head of Trust and Safety, in a statement. "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."

Safety Measures in the App

The lawsuit argues that Lyft should have made changes to the app to prevent assaults, like requiring the camera to remain on during the whole drive and implementing an alert system if the driver goes off course, or a panic button the rider could hit to alert the company of any misconduct.

In May, Lyft announced new initiatives that focus on increasing riders' safety, which include an in-app panic button that calls 911 directly. The company also enlarged drivers' license plate numbers in the app to prevent passengers from entering the wrong vehicle.

Lyft now requires passengers to leave feedback whenever they give a driver a rating below four stars, and anonymously relays this information to the driver. Drivers and riders will also have the option to partake in sexual harassment prevention training.

"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 stated.

But Estey argues there are more safety precautions Lyft should be taking.

"They could have installed cameras in these cars which would protect not only the passengers but also the drivers," Estey said. "They chose not to. They could have designed the app to send a safety alert when a ride is taking way too long or the driver deviates from the route. They chose not to."

Gladys, who declined to give her last name, alleges she was assaulted by her Lyft driver in 2018 in Los Angeles. She said he turned off the app a mile away from her home and drove her around for five hours in his locked car before taking her to a beach and raping her.

"Video of a ride would have shown my driver grabbing my phone away from me and climbing into the backseat," Gladys said. "Better GPS tracking could have protected me and helped ensure that my Lyft driver stayed on course. ...  I was held hostage for five hours and Lyft did not even know what my life was in danger."

Gladys said she reported the assault to the police. But because there was no recording of the assault and no witnesses, Gladys said investigators told her they couldn't prove it wasn't consensual.

"This is terrifying," Gladys said. "I don't want this to happen to anybody else. Lyft needs to change this."

Driver Hiring Process

According to the lawsuit, Lyft does name-based background checks, rather than fingerprint-based background checks on drivers, which would include information stored in law enforcement databases about the person, even if that information is stored under a different name.

The lawsuit also argues that Lyft should have a more rigorous hiring practice, like interviewing potential drivers.

"Despite advertising to passengers that 'Your safety is important' and 'Safety is our top priority,' Lyft's background check process is designed for speed, not safety," the lawsuit states.

Reporting the Assault

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The lawsuit claims that Lyft tries to silence victims of sexual assault by having operators with no trauma training take complaints from victims over the phone and by not providing adequate information to victims about the status of their complaint.

Kim, who declined to give her last name, said she was assaulted by her Lyft driver in Salt Lake City in December 2018. She reported the incident to police and to Lyft, and said Lyft told her they would investigate the incident.

"Lyft never returned my calls and sent me four emails in a span of nine months, one of which was an automated response," Kim said. "I had no clue something like this could happen and that Lyft's response would be so unsupportive."

The lawsuit says the driver was convicted of battery, and that Lyft told Kim that they could not confirm whether he was still driving for the company.

"Safety needs to be a priority," Kim said. "Safety over money, safety over publicity, safety over marketing ... and there's simple changes that can be made."

The lawsuit also alleges that Lyft is uncooperative with law enforcement by not reporting assaults to the police and by refusing to turn over information about the driver to authorities unless compelled by a subpoena. It argues that Lyft should be mandated to report sexual assaults to law enforcement.


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