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The sexual assault victims suing Uber notch a legal victory in their long battle

Nearly 100 sexual assault cases filed against Uber will be centralized under one judge.
Matthew Horwood
Getty Images
Nearly 100 sexual assault cases filed against Uber will be centralized under one judge.

Updated October 11, 2023 at 4:46 PM ET

Hundreds of women have filed lawsuits against Uber alleging the company hasn't done enough to protect passengers from sexual assault. Now, a panel of judges has ruled that about 80 of those cases can be joined together in federal court.

All of the pretrial matters will be heard under Judge Charles Breyer in the Northern District of California. That includes witness and expert depositions and document discovery.

"This is a big deal because those documents are going to help show, we believe, that the sexual assault problem from drivers to riders is a massive problem," says Bret Stanley, attorney for Texas firm Kherkher Garcia, who's representing several of the victims.

The cases will ultimately go to trial in their respective states, unless Judge Breyer decides to take on what's known as a "bellwether trial" to act as a representative trial for all the cases. The process is expected to take up to two years.

The incidents cited in the lawsuits span from alleged groping to kidnapping to rape. While Uber drivers have also allegedly been victims of sexual assault, this specific grouping of cases only involves passenger incidents.

Those victims allege that Uber has the capacity to make rides safer, but its response to these incidents has been slow and inadequate. They claim Uber does substandard background checks and doesn't always remove drivers after sexual assault allegations are filed. They add that Uber could do more to make the platform safer, like fingerprint background checks and dashcam recordings of every ride.

"When growth is the ultimate goal and top line revenue is the ultimate goal, I think that, despite what they know, they're picking profits over people," Kevin Conway, managing partner at Peiffer Wolf, which is representing dozens of sexual assault clients, said during a Wednesday press conference. "There are tried and true methods to making this truly a safer alternative, as opposed to a magnet for predators."

Uber spokesperson Gabriela Condarco-Quesada wrote in an email to NPR that "Sexual assault is a horrific crime, and we take every report of this nature very seriously. While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we are deeply committed to the safety of all users on the Uber platform."

Uber has been sued countless times over the past several years by passengers who allege they were sexually assaulted while using the app. But this is the first time a federal judge will be able to make decisions for all of these cases and streamline the proceedings. A consolidated lawsuit has been filed against Uber in California, but it's for victims only in that state. And Lyft has faced similar combined lawsuits.

Under Uber's terms of use, class action lawsuits can't be filed against the company in cases of sexual assault. So each case has to be heard individually. That means victims haven't been able to advocate for themselves as a group.

Uber has tried to stop the consolidation of these cases. In several filings for motions to dismiss, the company argues it "did not owe a duty to Plaintiff to protect against the criminal conduct" and these lawsuits "have little in common."

After news reports in 2018 revealed that more than 100 women had been sexually assaulted during Uber rides, Uber began to focus more on ride safety. It introduced several in-app safety features, like a 9-1-1 button and a way for friends or family members to monitor rides in real-time. It also produced its first-ever safety report that tallied data on alleged sexual assaults during its rides.

Data from its latest safety report in 2020 and its previous report in 2018 shows there were 9,805 reports of sexual assaults in its rides from 2017 to 2020, which included 852 reports of rape.

The case against Uber could grow as more victims file federal lawsuits against the company and are able to join the coordinated proceedings.

"Cases are being filed every day, including by our firm" Rachel Abrams, who's also an attorney at Peiffer Wolf, said during Wednesday's press conference. And while there are nearly 100 cases now, "we expect the numbers to be in the thousands."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 10, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly cited Uber's data on sexual assault and rape as "incidents," rather than "reported incidents."
Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.