Uber Can’t Duck Sexual Assault Claims

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Uber can’t escape a lawsuit brought by two women who say they were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers in Boston and South Carolina, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
     Two Jane Does sued Uber in October 2015, claiming the ride-hail service inadequately screened drivers and promoted a false marketing campaign touting itself as one of the safest ways to get home after a night of drinking.
     One of the women says a driver in South Carolina drove her in the wrong direction away from her home, asked her to perform oral sex as “payment” for her ride and then “viciously raped” her in August 2015.
     The other plaintiff says a 38-year-old Uber driver in Boston dropped off her friends, drove her 15 minutes off-route from her destination and then forcibly kissed and groped her in February 2015.
     At a hearing last month, an Uber attorney said the ride-hail company shouldn’t be held liable because the alleged sexual assaults “had nothing to do” with the job being performed by drivers.
     In a May 4 ruling, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston rejected that argument.
     The judge cited several rulings including the 1991 California Supreme Court decision Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles, which held the city liable for a police officer who followed a woman home after a traffic stop and raped her.
     “Like a police officer who rapes a detained woman, an employee who throws a hammer at a fellow worker in a fit of irritation, or an asylum officer who abuses his role to confer female immigrants and molest them, sexual assault by an Uber driver may be incidental to the operation of its business,” Illston wrote in her 19-page ruling.
     Uber had also argued that because its drivers are independent contractors, not employees, it can’t be held liable as an employer.
     However, Illston called that claim questionable, citing her colleague U.S. Judge Edward Chen’s decision in the employment class action O’Connor v. Uber which found that drivers presented adequate facts to support the existence of an employer-employee relationship.
     Uber also sought to dismiss claims that it orchestrated a false marketing campaign regarding the safety of its rides. The judge refused to dismiss that allegation, saying it was reasonable to believe both women relied on Uber’s statements about ride safety when they chose to accept rides from the drivers.
     Because the two women presented a plausible claim for fraud, the judge also refused to dismiss a claim for damages which the plaintiffs may seek if they succeed on their fraud claims.
     However, because the driver who assaulted one of the plaintiffs in South Carolina had no criminal record, the judge dismissed that claim for negligent hiring and supervision. The driver had only been in the country for three years, and Uber could not have known the driver was unfit as an employee, Illston said.
     The other driver who allegedly assaulted one plaintiff in Boston had an assault conviction from 2003, but Uber’s background checks only go back seven years.
     Although Uber characterized that conviction as a “12-year-old disorderly persons offense that could have been expunged,” the judge found the driver’s criminal history still gave Uber knowledge of an incident that could have disqualified him as a driver. Therefore, the judge refused to dismiss that claim for negligent hiring.
     Ultimately, the judge denied all of Uber’s motions to dismiss claims in the lawsuit except for the negligent hiring claim for the alleged incident in South Carolina, which was dismissed without prejudice.
     Uber spokesman Matt Kallman declined to comment.

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