SEXUAL ASSAULT
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Uber is being sued in the US by two women claiming sexual assault by its drivers

Lawyer says she as gathering more plaintiffs to call for stricter screening for drivers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 5:40pm

Uber in the US is facing two separate lawsuits brought against the ride-hail company by women who claim they were sexually assaulted by their drivers.

While the circumstances and allegations in the two complaints are different and were filed in separate states, both parties are suing Uber for negligent hiring and call into question the ride-hail company’s customer support and safety practices. Specifically, both complaints accuse the company of prioritising speed and cost effectiveness rather than safety when it comes to its driver-screening process.

One, filed in California last week by well-known celebrity attorney Lisa Bloom on behalf of her client, reads:

The application process to become an Uber driver is simple, fast, and designed to allow Uber to hire as many drivers as possible while incurring minimal associated costs. Such cost saving, however, is at the expense of riders, especially female riders.

The other, filed in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday similarly reads:

Despite consistently marketing its driver background check process as “industry leading” and “more rigorous than what is required to become a taxi driver” – in reality Uber’s application process is designed for speed, not safety.

This comes as the ride-hail company is trying to overhaul the public’s perception of both its corporate culture and the way in which it treats its customers, both riders and drivers.

Uber’s system for background checks was a major point of contention for the company as it battled to become legal across the U.S. Namely, the company has long fought against fingerprint background checks.

Uber has also previously settled a suit over misrepresenting its screening process by describing its background checks as “industry leading” or the “gold standard” — terms the company has since stopped using.

Both suits claim more rigorous background checks, including fingerprinting, could have prevented incidents like this from happening.

Bloom’s client, Erica Holland, alleges that she was assaulted and sexually battered by her driver during the ride. Her driver, whose name on the app was Hamzik, first grabbed her by the hair then later put his hand up her skirt. Holland called the police and emailed Uber. While it’s not included in the complaint, Bloom told Recode that Uber’s response to her client’s report was to simply offer to repay her for the cost of the ride.

Uber says the driver doesn’t have access to the platform anymore. The company has yet to receive an inquiry from the Los Angeles Police Department but is fully prepared to participate in any criminal investigation.

“No person should ever have to experience the violent act that’s been reported to police,” the company said in a statement.

Now, Bloom is in the midst of speaking to and vetting additional plaintiffs. She expects to have at least six more women — both Uber drivers and riders around the world — who have been assaulted during a ride join the suit.

While Holland is seeking monetary compensation for her emotional and physical injuries, she is also asking that Uber be ordered to implement a number of new policies and in-app features to prevent against these assaults in the future.

Holland is asking for an in-app panic button — a feature that Uber rolled out in India after a 2014 rape — as well as the ability for female customers to specifically choose female drivers. Holland also asks that the ride-hail company enforce mandatory fingerprint testing and require drivers to install cameras inside their cars.

“We believe this is a very significant problem in Uber cars and a problem that can be prevented in large part by [new] safety mechanisms,” Bloom told Recode.

The second suit similarly questions the driver-screening process as well as Uber’s incident response process.

On January 27, 2017, a woman, referred to as Jane Doe in the complaint, was allegedly raped by her Uber driver, named Yakhahnahn Ammi in the suit. The victim, the suit claims, was visibly intoxicated and the driver insisted on coordinating rides to and from different events throughout the night through the app. At the end of the night, after dropping her off at her apartment, he returned to use her bathroom.

“After letting Ammi use the restroom in her apartment, Ammi refused to leave the apartment despite multiple requests from Plaintiff to do so. Ammi then raped Plaintiff.”

While there’s little information about Holland’s driver, since only his first name was included in the app, the driver in the second lawsuit has a history of violent crime and was sentenced to a 16-year prison term for attempted murder.

What complicates matters here is that the driver was charged in 1996. Uber’s background checks, performed by a company called Checkr, only go back seven years. This is in line with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, an Uber spokesperson pointed out.

Uber declined to discuss the driver’s criminal history and is still reviewing the suit.

However, the driver in question was involved in a series of civil and criminal issues in both Illinois and Missouri as recently as 2016. On Dec. 25, 2016, Ammi allegedly assaulted a woman in St. Louis, Mo.

“Shortly thereafter, Ammi was charged with third-degree domestic assault and had a warrant issued for his arrest,” the complaint reads.

Five days later, the woman submitted an incident report to Uber notifying the company that there was a warrant out for his arrest. This incident, to be clear, did not happen during an Uber ride.

An Uber customer support representative called the woman and informed her that the company was taking the incident very seriously.

However, Uber confirmed that the driver was not permanently deactivated until March 2017 when the company did a follow-up background check and verified the pending charges. A spokesperson said that he was temporarily blocked immediately following the complaint, as is the company’s policy.

“After hiring Ammi, Uber negligently retained Ammi after Uber was put on actual notice that Ammi violently assaulted a woman in December 2016, had a warrant out for his arrest for third-degree domestic assault, and posed a serious risk to the safety of Uber riders,” the suit alleges.

These are certainly not the first cases of this nature in recent weeks. Another Los Angeles woman accused a driver of sexually assaulting her after she fell asleep in her car. The driver, who’s since been arrested, also had a felony conviction for the possession of narcotics with the intent to sell from the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

By Johana Bhuiyan , Re/code.net .

Read the original article at CNBC