SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Uber will have to limit the number of drivers it plans to call as witnesses in a sweeping labor trial set to begin in June, a federal judge said Thursday.
At a hearing to determine what the trial against the mobile ride-hailing company will look like, the lawyer representing a class of 240,000 said she feared Uber will hijack proceedings by parading a host of satisfied Uber drivers before the jury.
The case was initially brought in 2013 by three former Uber drivers claiming they are employees entitled to reimbursement for gas and other employment-related expenses.
In September 2015, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen ruled that a class of people who drove for Uber since Aug. 16, 2009 could sue over whether they are employees or independent contractors and over whether Uber illegally withheld tips from them. In December, Chen ruled that they can seek reimbursement for phone and vehicle-related costs.
"Asking the jury to listen to a whole lot of evidence of what drivers think seems like a strange way to try this case. I expect it will be a large part of Uber's defense," class attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan said. "They don't need to parade in legions of drivers to say 'we choose how many hours we work and we really like it.' "
Liss-Riordan said to prevent that, she was willing to stipulate to the drivers believing they were entering into an independent-contractor relationship with Uber, not an employee relationship, and that drivers can control how many hours they work.
"If counsel is willing to stipulate that drivers subjectively believed they created an independent-contractor relationship, you win on that factor," U.S. District Judge Edward Chen told Uber lawyer Theodore Boutrous.
But Boutrous accused Liss-Riordan of trying to hamstring Uber's defense.
"We want to put a human face on this case, and a jury deserves to hear that and the differing ways people use the platform," Boutrous said. "These are human beings talking about their lives. We're not going to engage in overkill."
Chen asked, "Should the plaintiffs be allowed to bring in evidence of how someone who works 48 hours a week is dependent on Uber? Are we going to besiege the jury with polar extremes? At some point how is that relevant?"
Boutrous said, "I have a feeling that while she doesn't want Uber to put on any drivers, the named plaintiffs are planning on testifying along those lines."
In reply, Liss-Riordan said, "I don't think this is relevant on either side. I'm really worried about what this trial is gearing up to look like."
Chen said he didn't want testimony to get repetitive."At the end of the day I'm governed by rules of relevancy here. I'm skeptical that we need to hear from 25 different drivers," Chen said.
"We would not score any points with you or the jury if we did that," Boutrous said. "I promise we're not going to try to bore you and the jury with a bunch of repetitive evidence. I vow the evidence will be informative, interesting and relevant."