November 5, 2021

HJ Talks About Abuse: Uber

Uber Technologies Inc is a technology company that offers ride-hailing services to its platform users. The company uses its algorithms to connect passengers to their pool of registered Uber drivers to use their transportation services in exchange for payment. Today, Uber counts over 14 million trips each day in more than 60 countries.

Uber have now also expanded to boat travel and Uber Eats food delivery services.

One of the questions which has been posed over the years is whether drivers are self-employed or employees. The Supreme Court held that drivers must be treated as employees with holiday pay and minimum wage. This is important for anyone bringing a claim against Uber drivers, who would look to a claim against Uber as being vicariously liable for the actions of their drivers rather that pursuing claims against drivers directly.

In London, Uber secured its right to continue operating after a Judge upheld its appeal against TfL. TfL had rejected Uber’s application to be granted a new licence over safety concerns in 2017. One of the main concerns raised by TfL was a flaw in Uber's system that allowed unauthorised people to upload their photographs to legitimate drivers' accounts, which then allowed them to pick up passengers.

This ‘flaw in the system’ allowed Naveed Iqbal to use his brother’s Uber login details to use the app as a driver. He was alleged to have sexually assaulted two women in Leeds in 2015. Both women have recently reached a five figure settlements with Uber, after Uber were found liable for the incidents as it had a duty of care to protect passengers.

Iqbal lost an appeal in 2017 to keep his own private-hire licence when a crown court heard no charges had been brought, but a judge said he had carried out the attacks “on the balance of probabilities”.

In 2018, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said TfL was "absolutely right" not to renew Uber licence but acknowledged the company had "made improvements". Alarmingly, that same year, more than 3,000 Uber passengers and drivers reported sexual assaults.

The ‘improvements’ in Uber’s way of handling the widespread problem may have been triggered by the accusation Uber faced in the US, trying to force women who say they were sexually assaulted by drivers to resolve their claims behind closed doors through arbitration rather than in courts. Similarly, Uber was fined $59m (£43m) for refusing to disclose details of more than 1,200 alleged victims of sexual assault involving its drivers in California between 2017 and 2019, justifying it would be a ‘shocking violation of privacy’ for victims. The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), which imposed the fine, said it did not require a public disclosure of the information, and the details of individual cases would have been kept private.

In July 2021, Uber has agreed to pay a reduced fine of $9 million to the California Public Utilities Commission. Uber will now provide anonymised data about the assaults to the Commission.

With the aim of ‘standing with survivors’, Uber voluntarily published the US Safety report that discusses safety issues. They claim they understand that business leaders such as Uber have a unique opportunity to address the widespread problem of sexual assault and harassment, not only by acknowledging and assessing the issue but also by responding appropriately when incidents occur.

“Uber has emerged as a leading partner in standing against sexual assault – not just through accountability and transparency, but also by supporting survivors, eliminating barriers to reporting, and taking steps to prevent violence and harassment. We call on other companies to follow Uber’s lead by partnering with anti-violence organizations and releasing their own reports.” - Cindy Southworth, Executive Director, National Network to End Domestic Violence

The safety team at Uber has tripled since 2017 and there are more than 300 professionals now dedicated to safety. Uber has been testing different features and reports various improvements:

  • Allowing riders to verify their driver with secure PIN code
  • Enabling for a text message to directly be sent to 911 operators (in the US) and report safety incidents to Uber before the trip is even over.
  • Improvement of drivers’ background checks and screenings
  • Feature ‘share my trip’/ ‘follow my ride

Sexual assault claims have not just been limited to Uber. Lyft was also sued by 19 women in December 2019. The platform has been accused as not doing enough to prevent sexual assaults by drivers on the platform, and not investigating complaints properly.

Since March, the two ride-hailing firms agreed they will put aside competition and partner to share data on drivers who have been banned from their platforms in the US for serious safety incidents, including sexual assault and physical assaults resulting in a fatality.

However, the lack of comprehensive background checks coupled with inadequate investigation of customer complaints involving sexually inappropriate behaviour by drivers still puts thousands of men and women at risk. Only in June 2021, did a video surfaced of a woman in Australia who filmed her uber driver relentlessly pestering her for sex.

Statistics obtained by The Sun revealed Uber drivers were accused of 32 rapes and sex attacks on London passengers over the past year, this is equal to one every 11 days.

The figures represent more than a fifth of all claims against taxi and car-hire drivers filed to 14 UK police forces last year, which totalled at 154 allegations including attacks in minicabs and chauffeur vehicles

As many of the cases brought forward have been settled behind closed doors, many consumers continue to use such services with no knowledge of the potential dangers. We would expect as the consumer that these individuals have been through an extensive vetting process.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins at Alan.collins@hughjames.com or Danielle Vincent at Danielle.vincent@hughjames.com.

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