January 24, 2020

Taxi Drivers and Liability for Sexual Assaults

The vast majority of us have hailed a taxi to get from “A to B”. It is an aspect of modern life with which we are familiar and never really give much thought to perhaps, until now. There have been a number of very high profile media reports concerning sexual assaults in the back of cabs.

There is of course the notorious “black cab” case of John Worboys who drugged and raped his passengers and is now serving a life sentence for his numerous crimes.

We now have Uber which revolutionised “hailing a cab”, revealing that in the USA it received almost 6,000 reports of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018.

While the number of cases rose in 2018, the rate of incidents dropped by 16%, as the number of journeys was higher.

Passengers, as opposed to drivers, accounted for nearly half of those accused of sexual assault.

The data was published in a report which Uber said showed its commitment to "improving safety for Uber and the entire industry".

Uber is facing growing scrutiny around the world, and recently lost its licence to operate in London.

The report showed 5,981 sexual assault incidents were reported out of the 2.3bn US trips over the two-year period.

Uber claimed 99.9% of the total journeys were concluded without safety issues.

The report makes fascinating reading, but for our podcast we want to explore the question of liability when in those cases things go terribly wrong and a passenger is sexually assaulted.

Many “cabbies” are self-employed, but many are not and work for an employer, or are “contracted”.

If a driver sexually assaults a passenger they are of course both criminally liable but also liable to pay compensation for having committed the tort of assault.

If the driver is working for an employer then this may be a case of vicarious liability.

The doctrine of vicarious liability applies to make employers responsible for the harm caused by employees committed during the course of their employment, provided there is a close connection between their job and the wrong complained of. For example a school or education authority is likely to be vicariously liable for a sexual assault committed by a teacher on their pupil.

If an employed “cabbie” sexually assaulted a passenger the employer may be vicariously liable. Each and every case is unique and the facts in each are determinative of liability, but as a general principle the argument would be that it was the driver’s task to take the passenger to their destination and to do so safely.

If the driver was not employed in a general sense but was “freelance” or contracted in some way there could be still be a vicarious liability situation and arguably so if the contractor was in effect giving instructions and determining how they went about their business.

Similarly there may be liability if the driver was the agent. A principal is normally liable for all acts of an agent within the agent’s authority, whether responsibility arises in contract or in tort. Authority means the agent’s actual, apparent (ostensible) or usual (customary) authority. This can be contentious because the argument would be that the driver was not authorised to assault his passengers, but then a teacher is not permitted to assault the pupils, and so the court examines the nature of the relationship between employer and employee to see if there is that close connection. This is back to the vicarious liability test.

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