The story is a chilling one: Lyft drivers pick up an 11-year-old girl after midnight and take her from her home to one hotel and then to another where she is repeatedly raped. Then the girl is picked up the next morning by yet another Lyft driver and taken home. The story is all the more alarming because it is not a story. It is true.
The drivers who knowingly transported the unaccompanied minor to places where she was sexually abused could face penalties. But how about rideshare services themselves?
Often Uber and Lyft, the two most popular rideshare companies are shielded by antiquated precedent and able to escape liability in such instances by claiming their drivers are independent contractors, separate and apart from their companies.
Kline & Specter attorney Nadeem Bezar, whose practice focuses on child and sexual abuse, noted: “Predators use Uber and Lyft to prey on, traffic and harm children, just like N.J. (the initials of the 11-year-old mentioned above), all the time.”
Bezar, who made his comments in the quarterly Pennsylvania Association for Justice magazine, said the courts and legislative bodies have grappled with this problem almost since the rideshare companies came into existence. A California proposition, for instance, allowed Uber and Lyft to continue treating drivers as independent contractors rather than employees in that state.
Bezar suggested that basic negligence principles should apply to achieve fundamental fairness in ascribing liability. It is negligent, for instance, to transport an unaccompanied minor anywhere, never mind after midnight and to a hotel. He noted that while Uber and Lyft both prohibit transporting minors without an adult, it is the companies’ “worst kept secret” that this occurs often – in a 2019 survey, 13 percent of parents acknowledged allowing their 14-17-year-old children to ride Uber or Lyft alone or with a young friend.
Bezar recommended scrapping the notion that Uber and Lyft bear no responsibility in cases in which a minor becomes a victim, that they are merely “connecting riders and drivers.” That’s like saying supermarkets are simply connecting shoppers with food products and have no responsibility for bad products they might sell. Bezar noted that a number of states – California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin among them – have recently ascribed liability to Amazon for products it warehouses, places in its boxes, and ships to the public.
Similarly, when you book a ride with Uber, “You are using their application, you are trusting their process, you are selecting a type of service (Uber Share, Uber Black, Uber X) and you are expecting the driver will display an Uber logo and log the rider in the Uber app,” wrote Bezar. He added that Uber, for example, also through media and its website, represents that it subjects its drivers to rigorous screening before hiring them and then continues to monitor drivers after they are hired. “Therefore,” he concluded, “at a minimum, it makes logical sense to extend Uber and Lyft’s liability to the promises they make themselves.”
Bezar would also apply to the rideshare companies the “concept of inherently dangerous activities,” when an employer should recognize that an activity is likely to create a likelihood of risk to others. Surely, taking an unaccompanied 11-year-old girl to a motel at midnight would seem to create such a risk.