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Nearly 200 Uber Sexual Assault Cases Are Being Grouped Together in 1 SF Court

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A view of the dashboard of a car with Uber and Lyft logos on the window. Inside sits a man in the driver's seat.
An Uber driver waits to pick up a customer in San Francisco. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

More than 175 individual sexual assault cases against Uber were recently consolidated, each of which similarly claims the San Francisco-based ride-share company hasn’t done enough to protect passengers. And on Friday, the parties involved met for the first time before a federal judge in San Francisco.

Uber’s terms of use preclude class-action lawsuits against the company in cases of sexual assault. But, over the company’s objections, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued the current cases are similar enough to warrant “multidistrict litigation,” which brings together similar cases from multiple court districts.

In the coming months, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer will hear pretrial matters that pertain to all the cases and ultimately decide whether to take on what’s called a “bellwether trial” or a smaller sampling of lawsuits from a larger group of similar cases. If he declines to do so, the individual cases will ultimately head back to their home states for trial.

This comes as another consolidated set of lawsuits was recently filed against Uber that also accuses the company of failing to adequately ensure the safety of its passengers in California.

“We think they’re putting profits over safety every day,” said Bret Stanley, a Houston-based personal injury lawyer, whose firm, Kherkher Garcia, is one of about 15 involved in Uber’s “multidistrict litigation” — or as he likes to calls it, “class action’s cousin.”

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In recent years, scores of passengers have alleged being sexually assaulted by drivers while riding with Uber and Lyft — with allegations ranging from groping to rape to kidnapping — and sued the companies for failing to provide adequate safeguards.

Uber told KQED it could not comment on pending litigation. But it stressed that the vast majority — 99.9% — of the billions of trips it makes are completed without any reported safety incidents.

“Uber is going to say, ‘99% of the time, we’re good.’ Well, .1% of a billion is 1 million! Right? The numbers are so huge,” Stanley said. “We really do want to force change.”

He said Uber is well aware of the steps it can take to make rides safer.

“Because they know more data about these drivers than anyone,” he said. “Uber collects data on drivers on every single trip. And they should not be exposing people to safety risks if they have reason to believe that this person is unsafe or has done, previously, sexually inappropriate things in the vehicle.”

In 2018, Uber introduced a number of safety features, including an in-app 911 button and location sharing. Last year, it announced a partnership with ADT, a security firm, and added the capacity for passengers to record audio in its app and request live help from an ADT safety agent.

But Stanley and other parties suing Uber argue those steps don’t go far enough and say the company should implement stronger safeguards, like tougher background checks and video recordings of every ride. They also say Uber should immediately deactivate the accounts of drivers who have been recorded engaging in inappropriate behavior.

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Although Uber has long resisted implementing stricter background checks, it launched last year a voluntary in-ride video recording pilot program in a handful of cities.

Some longtime Uber drivers, like Sergio Avedian, pay for their own dashcams as a personal safety measure.

“I think it’s a huge deterrent,” Avedian said of his dashcam, which he claims has prevented some passengers from behaving inappropriately.

“You’re on your own as a driver and a passenger,” said Avedian, a senior contributor to The Rideshare Guy blog and the host of its podcast.

In fact, roughly half of Uber’s sexual assault allegations involve passengers assaulting drivers, the company reported.

Avedian said he thinks passengers should have to opt out of allowing video recordings during rides rather than opting in. The cost of installing dashcams in every car is nominal, he said, and in a world where people regularly overshare on social media anyway, the potential privacy concerns seem relatively negligible, particularly if it enhances safety.

“My safety trumps privacy, and passenger safety should trump privacy,” Avedian said. “Because, again, you’re in a car with a stranger. All it takes is one of these instances to change your life forever.”

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