Uber, facing scrutiny for its "toxic" culture of sexual harassment and for alleged trade secret theft from Alphabet's Waymo, has been hit with yet another lawsuit alleging that one of its drivers attempted to rape a passenger.
Attorneys representing an unnamed ("Jane Doe") plaintiff filed a complaint against the company in Northern California District Court on Thursday claiming that in August last year, in Minnesota, an Uber driver identified as Abdel Jaquez forced the plaintiff to remain in his car and sexually assaulted her before she was able to escape.
The complaint claims that "Jaquez remains an authorized Uber driver to the present time."
An Uber spokesperson in an email to The Register declined to comment beyond noting that the driver "has been removed from the app."
Another assault case involving Jane Doe plaintiffs in Boston, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina, was filed in California last year and settled on undisclosed terms after the judge refused to dismiss it.
In the first two months of this year, there have been eight publicly reported assaults and two sexual assaults worldwide allegedly involving Uber drivers, according to an anti-ridesharing website maintained by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.
It's not clear whether taxis and limousines are any safer than Uber, Lyft, or the like because records of assaults in taxis are not generally available.
More than 30 sexual assaults by Uber drivers against Uber passengers have been reported in the media in the last two years, according to the lawsuit.
The latest claim against Uber makes a novel legal argument in its effort to hold the company responsible for the actions of drivers, whom Uber insists are independent contractors. It asserts that Uber's deployment of self-driving cars shows its drivers have no more autonomy than robots.
"As demonstrated by Uber’s roll-out of 'driverless' (computer-driven) cars, Jaquez' role in Uber’s transportation company was interchangeable with a robot," the lawsuit states. "Uber controlled all facets of payment, payment processing, rate-setting, customer communications, feedback, branding, advertising, logos, and uniformity among drivers. Jaquez' work did not require specialized skill. He could be terminated at any time, on Uber’s terms."
Sara M. Peters, an attorney with Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger representing the plaintiff, elaborated on this argument in an email to The Register. She says that Uber's 2016 rollout of driverless cars in Pittsburg means that Uber can no longer credibly argue that its employees are independent contractors.
"If its human drivers are independent contractors then its driverless cars must be independent contractors too," said Peters. "And that’s absurd. A driverless car is obviously not running its own business. The law says that whether a driver is an employee or independent contractor depends on a variety of factors, primarily how much control the company exerts over the driver."
Peters continued, "Because Uber's drivers do not have specialized skills, and simply follow Uber's instructions, they are and always have been employees. The introduction of driverless cars does not change this, but it does make it more obvious than ever."
Uber has fought tooth and nail to prevent its drivers from being classified as employees, due to the potential costs related to employee benefits and worker liability. The company nearly settled a legal challenge over this issue in California for $100 million, but the judge refused to approve the settlement and later stayed the case pending the outcome of other lawsuits challenging Uber's arbitration agreement with its drivers.
The lawsuit filed Thursday charges Uber with fraud and negligence for promising a safe ride and for failing to ensure passenger safety through driver screening and managerial supervision.
Last year, Uber agreed to pay $25 million to settle a case brought by the District Attorneys from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The settlement terms prohibit the company from "from making misleading statements regarding the safety of its transportation services or the background checks of its drivers."
Uber's driver screening process has long been the subject of criticism because it doesn't involve fingerprint checks against criminal databases – something Uber has said isn't effective.
The lawsuit argues the issue is cost. "The application process to become an Uber driver is simple, fast, and designed to allow the Company to hire as many drivers as possible while incurring minimal associated costs," the complaint states. "Such cost saving, however, is at the expense of riders, especially female riders." ®