Robert Galbraith / Reuters
A Los Angeles woman is suing Uber for negligence after her driver was sentenced for sexually battering her after giving her a ride in July 2014. But Uber told BuzzFeed News the attack happened after the driver completed the woman’s trip, so the incident occurred “off the platform.”
Keather Taylor, 27, filed a lawsuit against Uber in L.A. County Superior Court on Thursday that alleges the ride-hail giant “was in conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others” and “breached their duty to own, manage, maintain, design, control and operate their business so as to prevent any violence or attacks on individuals using their transportation services.”
“We do know the driver accompanied the rider to her apartment. The trip had ended at that point. Anything that occurred happened off the platform.” —Uber
Uber told BuzzFeed News that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but that Taylor’s Uber driver marked the ride as complete in the app before the incident. “After the trip concluded, we do know the driver accompanied the rider to her apartment,” Uber said. “The trip had ended at that point. Anything that occurred happened off the platform.”
Taylor, who had been drinking with friends, said she woke up the next morning, July 21, 2014, wearing nothing but a torn bra. The toilet seat was up, implying a man had used her bathroom, and there was a condom wrapper on her nightstand. She was confused — her last memory of the night was getting into an Uber to go to the apartment of the man she dating, she told BuzzFeed News.
Her Uber ride receipt showed she was in the car for about 16 minutes. According to its map, the car drove from her apartment toward the home of a man she was dating, overshot it, and then turned back. It retraced the same route and stopped a 5-minute walk from her apartment, where the ride ended, according to the receipt. Her roommate Allison let her into the apartment, along with a man her roommate assumed Taylor knew. But when Taylor and Allison checked her ride receipt the next morning, they realized her driver’s photo matched the man who followed her into her room, Taylor told BuzzFeed News.
Taylor called 911, and the police took her to a rape treatment center. About three months later, theL.A. County District Attorney’s Office charged Walter Alberto Ponce, Taylor’s driver, then 24, with rape of an unconscious person and assault with intent to commit rape. In January 2015, Ponce pleaded no contest (which is conceding without admitting guilt or presenting a defense) to criminal sexual battery and was sentenced to three years of probation. He also had to register as a sex offender and complete a one-year counseling program.
After repeating that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Uber told BuzzFeed News that Ponce, Taylor’s driver, was highly rated on its app, with “no prior significant complaints,” and he had no prior criminal record. Uber said it deactivated Ponce on July 21, the day of the incident, after Taylor’s sister used her phone to tell Uber what happened while Taylor was in the rape treatment center.
This is yet another case in which Uber drivers have been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing passengers this year. On Saturday, an Uber driver in East Palo Alto was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. And earlier this month, an Uber driver in Chicago was charged with criminal sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping.
BuzzFeed News reported in March that screenshots of Uber’s internal customer service database showed a search query for “sexual assault” returned 6,160 Uber customer support tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returned 382 results, and “rape” returned 5,827 individual tickets from December 2012 to August 2015. Uber told BuzzFeed News then that during that time period, it actually received “fewer than 170” claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride.
In February, Uber agreed to pay $28.5 million to 25 million riders after a pair of lawsuits accused it of falsely advertising that Uber offers “the safest ride on the road.”
Uber said incidents like Taylor’s show how its “two-way feedback” system helps investigate drivers after one party reports a bad experience. In the past, the company has said it’s not responsible for its drivers’ actions because they are independent contractors, not employees. But courts are starting to challenge this idea. In San Francisco, a federal judge ruled in May that the company can still be sued for negligence in its hiring of drivers. And in February, Uber agreed to pay $28.5 million to 25 million riders after a pair of lawsuits accused it of falsely advertising that Uber offers “the safest ride on the road.” The company will relabel its “safe ride fee” as a booking fee.
Taylor’s lawyers told BuzzFeed they spoke with Uber before filing the lawsuit to ask the company to add more safety features for riders, such as an in-app SOS button, which Uber introduced in India in 2015 after a passenger in New Delhi alleged that her driver raped her. They also said they suggested that Uber fingerprint drivers, which proponents say could deter drivers from committing crimes. Uber has fought this measure in several cities. (The company pulled out of Austin in May, after voters there upheld a city requirement that drivers undergo fingerprint checks.)
Taylor’s lawyers said they also told Uber it could set up an alert system that notifies the company if a driver is at a pickup or drop-off location for an abnormally long period of time, or if a trip goes off-route or takes much longer than the estimated time.
“We proposed these safety measures. They don’t see the need for them,” Antonio Castillo, one of Taylor’s lawyers, told BuzzFeed. “They’re blaming Walter Ponce. They feel he’s the one to blame and they don’t have any responsibility.”
Uber told BuzzFeed its logs show that Taylor didn’t enter her destination into the app, and likely verbally told the driver the address instead. The route outlined on the ride receipt shows that the driver started going toward Taylor’s intended destination, Uber said, but then turned around and ended the ride near where it started: Taylor’s apartment. Given that she didn’t enter her destination in the app, it’s unclear that if such an alert system existed, it would have been triggered in Taylor’s case.
Uber also told BuzzFeed it does not plan to expand the panic button to locations outside of India because in the US, riders can dial 911. (India is in the process of developing its own centralized emergency line, 112.) The company did announce in June that it’s testing a feature that tracks driving to eventually build a real-time alert system for erratic drivers, though that safety score rates drivers’ navigation and braking smoothness and isn’t a direct response to the sexual assaults passengers have reported while using the company’s service.