Lawsuit against Lyft sheds light on number of women claiming sexual assault by drivers

The number of driver sexual assaults reported to ride-hailing companies by their passengers has remained a tightly guarded figure, but a new California lawsuit against Lyft (LYFT) sheds a fraction of light on the magnitude of the issue.

In a San Francisco Superior Court complaint filed Wednesday, 14 women from across the U.S. say they were sexually assaulted or raped by their Lyft driver between 2018 and 2019. The crimes, they say, occurred because of lax hiring standards and a failure to warn passengers about those standards. The lawsuit also claims that in 2015 and 2016, Lyft received close to 100 reports of its drivers sexually assaulting passengers — from a single U.S. state.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen Estey, told Yahoo Finance that he uncovered the figure during discovery in a separate case against Lyft, which showed that all of the nearly 100 reports came from passengers in California. He clarified that the reports were logged over an 18- to 20-month span.

“You can extrapolate out and do the math. It’s probably in the thousands throughout the country,” Estey said. “And that's way back when Lyft had a very small market share.”

The Lyft Driver Hub is seen in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

According to Lyft’s August 7, 2019 financial filing, during its fiscal second quarter, it increased the number of active riders 41% year-over-year, from 15.5 million to 21.8 million. At the start of 2015, Lyft reportedly averaged 2.5 million rides, per month, or about 83,000 rides per day. By July 2017, the company announced it had reached a milestone of providing more than 1 million rides per day.

But that milestone came with negative press. Later in 2017, an Illinois woman claimed she had been assaulted by her Lyft driver. Lyft is not alone in claims of driver attacks. A 2018 report in CNN found that between 2014 and 2016 at least 103 Uber drivers were arrested, wanted by police or named as defendants in civil lawsuits, based on Uber passengers’ accusations of sexual assault or abuse.

Estey said it took him about a year since filing the separate case to compel Lyft to turn over the documents that contain the 2015-2016 data. “They fought me tooth and nail,” he said. The complaint further alleges that Lyft failed to turn over sex assault-related information to law enforcement in response to subpoena.

‘A really minimal background check’

Lyft declined to answer Yahoo Finance’s questions concerning the number of sexual assault reports communicated to the company from its passengers.

In a statement, Mary Winfield, Lyft’s head of trust and safety and Board Director for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said, “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.”

The statement continued: “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. 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.”

Las Vegas - Circa June 2019: Lyft Las Vegas Hub. Lyft and Uber have replaced many Taxi cabs with a smart phone app VII. Image: Getty

The plaintiffs say those efforts have fallen short. In California, Lyft is considered a “common carrier,” Estey said, which places on the company a heightened duty of care to its passengers. Plaintiffs are calling on Lyft to mandate active video cameras during passenger rides to protect both drivers and passengers. They would also like Lyft to adopt a panic button within the app, as well as a GPS programming alert that informs the company and possibly law enforcement if a route strays far off course.

“The problem is that their hiring process consists of a really minimal background check, no real interview, and then they come out, check out your car, and then you're allowed to drive, and there's no supervision,” Estey said. “Unfortunately, Lyft hasn't done a whole lot to prevent that from happening, even though they've known since inception of the company that this would be an issue. They haven't put any sort of safeguards in place to protect the passengers.”

The lawsuit filed Wednesday is one of approximately 20 similar lawsuits that Estey has filed on behalf of sexual assault victims against Lyft and Uber (UBER). The most recent complaint claims Lyft favors more lenient hiring criteria so that it can keep its driver pool at a maximum level.

“Lyft’s business model is designed to accept as many new drivers as possible,” the complaint states. “[T]hat is why Lyft corporate management has made deliberate decisions to adopt inadequate initial screening procedures, inadequate safety monitoring, and has failed to warn customers of the dangers of riding with Lyft.”

Alexis Keenan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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