Lyft Facing Flood Of Lawsuits After Riders Report They Were Sexually Attacked By Drivers

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 11, 2019 5:03 pm
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Uber lost hundreds of thousands of customers during the #DeleteUber campaign of 2017 and 2018. The protest hashtag went viral after a series of problems at Uber, including allegations of harassment and discrimination within the company, strife that, in part, eventually led to Uber's CEO being ousted.

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And throughout this, Uber's competitor Lyft pitched itself as the socially conscious alternative. But Lyft now faces a flood of lawsuits that accuse the company of failing to stop sexual assault and rape by its drivers.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story. And just a warning, this report contains details of sexual abuse.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Silicon Valley's disruptors have always tried to argue they're not just making money; they're making the world better and more connected one app and algorithm at a time. It's an ethos that often comes with a lot of hubris.

Take Lyft co-founder John Zimmer. At the height of the #DeleteUber movement, Zimmer told Time his company is the aware alternative. Quote, "we're woke. Our community is woke," he told the magazine, lifting a term from social protest movements. And Zimmer added that Lyft is, quote, "a better boyfriend."

Those are particularly haunting quotes for San Francisco attorney Rachel Abrams. Her firm has filed lawsuits against Lyft after being inundated with calls from women who say they've been sexually assaulted and/or raped by Lyft drivers.

RACHEL ABRAMS: I think this is an epidemic. They can say that they're woke, but that's not true. There's more and more assaults happening all the time.

WESTERVELT: Right now, it's impossible to tell just how many women have been sexually attacked using ride services. Lyft and Uber have pledged to publicly release such data. So far, they have not.

The vast majority of major police departments NPR contacted said they do not track sexual assaults by occupation or company. But the sheer number of calls to this firm shows it may well be an epidemic. So far, Abrams' partner Laurel Simes says they've heard from more than 150 female victims, and more calls come in every day.

LAUREL SIMES: This is out of control. And this needs to stop.

WESTERVELT: And that's just one firm. Other law offices report they, too, are representing more than a dozen women who say they were sexually abused by Lyft drivers. One of the women Simes and Abrams represent the lawsuit calls Jane Doe. NPR does not identify sexual assault victims by name unless they choose to.

One weeknight this past January, the New Orleans resident met up with a girlfriend at a bar. She ended up having too much to drink. Her girlfriend eventually called a Lyft to take Jane home, usually a short car ride across town. But once in the Lyft, she says the driver just kept on driving, far away from her neighborhood.

JANE DOE: For some of it, I was probably unconscious in the car. But the parts that I remember, I was, you know, trying to bargain with the attacker to please take me back to where I was originally supposed to go.

WESTERVELT: Instead, she alleges in her lawsuit, the Lyft driver drove her to his house, where he raped and sodomized her. In the middle of the night, the alleged attacker drove her home.

DOE: I walked in the door, and I called 911. The police took me to the hospital.

WESTERVELT: The driver's skin was found under her nails, the lawsuit says, DNA evidence Jane tried to fight him off. The accused driver is now behind bars awaiting trial on rape and kidnapping charges.

She's filed a separate civil suit against Lyft for damages and to get the company to change. Lyft does conduct background checks of drivers, but she wants Lyft to add more thorough fingerprint-based checks. She'd also like to see the company make other fixes, including video recording rides and adding an option for women to hail a female driver.

DOE: To create better safeguards and a new system of accountability so that this doesn't happen over and over and over again to women.

WESTERVELT: Alison Turkos says that happened to her one night in Brooklyn in 2017. She wants her name used. And she, too, is suing Lyft. One night after celebrating a friend's birthday, she called a Lyft from a bar to get home. The Lyft driver, she told police, instead drove her to a park area in New Jersey.

ALISON TURKOS: Where he and two other men proceeded to gang rape me multiple times, cheer each other on and high-five each other.

WESTERVELT: In response to the series of lawsuits, Lyft yesterday announced new safety measures, including new training for drivers and, later this year, a smart trip check-in feature that aims to sense when a trip has unexplained delays. Lyft also just added an emergency call button on its app. Turkos says that kind of panic button would've done nothing for her. The driver, she says, had a gun.

TURKOS: Once that gun got pulled on me, my hands were up against that back seat, and there was no way that I was going to be able to dial 911.

WESTERVELT: Uber also faces sexual assault lawsuits, but lawyers and women's groups say that company realized it had a serious problem and began to take substantive action. Kristen Houser is with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. She says in marked contrast to Lyft, her group has worked closely with Uber on bolstering training and other fixes.

KRISTEN HOUSER: They have been very serious about soliciting assistance, guidance, input, training for their staff. They've had a team of folks who have worked alongside of us for more than two years now.

WESTERVELT: Lyft declined multiple interview requests. In an emailed statement, the company said it's dedicating more resources to safety. Company president John Zimmer said in the statement, we don't take lightly any instances where someone's safety is compromised, especially in the ride-share industry, including the allegations of assault in the news.

Meantime, Alison Turkos doesn't put much faith in Lyft changing on its own. She says she has trouble trusting anybody these days. She's thankful her job often allows her to work from home because some days her PTSD is so bad she doesn't want to leave the house.

TURKOS: The thing that I want to say to Lyft is if it's hard for you to hear what happened to me, imagine how hard it is to have to survive it and for me to be able to tell you my story. I have lost friends because of this. I sometimes think that people don't understand how trauma can break you down to your bones.

WESTERVELT: Turkos says, my job now is to heal, and it's Lyft's to find a way to try to better protect women who use their service.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

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