Last year, Uber was sued by two women who said they were sexually attacked by drivers. On Friday, an Uber lawyer tried to convince a US federal judge to throw out the lawsuit, but she was unconvinced.
“The job being performed has nothing to do with the act,” Uber attorney Josh Cohen said, according to a report in Courthouse News. Cohen tried to walk a fine line, saying that Uber is merely a “facilitator of transportation” and not a transportation company.
US District Judge Susan Ilston brought up a 1956 case called Berger v. Southern Pacific, which involved a female passenger who was raped by a porter on a Pullman train car. It was a case brought up by neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants, and at the Friday hearing, both sides didn’t even seem to be aware of the case, according to a report from The Recorder.
In the Berger case, a California appeals court ruled for the plaintiff, finding that the Pullman Company had a responsibility for passenger safety and was thus liable for the porter’s conduct. “For me, that’s the starting point,” Illston said. The judge suggested she’ll let most of the plaintiffs’ claims move ahead.
Part of Uber’s defense is that its drivers are contractors, not employees. That classification has been challenged in multiple lawsuits. But even if the drivers are contractors, the nature of that relationship doesn’t necessarily get a company “off the hook,” Ilston said during the hearing.
Two “Jane Doe” plaintiffs say the company is responsible for drivers’ actions.
Plaintiffs attorney Jeanne Christensen said that when Uber drivers have the app on, the company is responsible for the safety of passengers. According to The Recorder, Christensen “seemed to concede” that wasn’t the case when the app was turned off. That’s relevant to the case at hand, because it’s disputed whether one of the two rides in question was initiated via the Uber app.
“The notion that Uber is sometimes a common carrier and not a common carrier at other times I think exposes the flaw in the argument,” Cohen said.
“It could make sense,” Ilston responded. Even though the concept of a “common carrier” was created long before Uber’s business model existed, that doesn’t mean the definition can’t apply to Uber, she said.
Overall, Ilston’s comments would seem to indicate that Uber’s motion to dismiss will fail, at least in part, leaving the company to face the bulk of the claims filed against it.
The lawsuit was originally filed in October 2015 by two Jane Doe clients, and it accuses Uber of negligence in hiring and fraud. It also charges the company with assault, battery, and false imprisonment, saying Uber is responsible for the conduct of its drivers.
Jane Doe 1 lives in Boston and says she was subjected to a sexual assault by her driver, who began groping her while the car was at a red light. She managed to escape the car and run to a friend’s house, where she called 911. The driver in that case, 31-year-old Abderrahim Dakiri, waived his right to a jury trial and was sentenced to two years’ probation in February.
Jane Doe 2 is a Florida resident who got a ride home with her friends last August. Her friends were dropped off first, after which her driver took her in the wrong direction, ending the ride in a parking lot. He took her phone, locked the doors, and “proceeded to viciously rape her and threaten her with harm,” according to the complaint (PDF).
Shortly thereafter, driver Patrick Aiello was arrested and charged with kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. There’s been no news on the resolution of Aiello’s case since August.
By: Joe Mullin